Chaitanya Tamahe’s meditative sophomore feature ‘The Disciple,’ opens with a small-scaled concert where a veteran Indian Classical singer is performing khayal (one of the most popular and ancient vocal genres in Hindustani Music). The camera slowly glides through the audience towards him and eventually to his disciple who looks up to him in complete awe. The adoration on his face comes from years and years of musical grooming by his father – a failed artist who left him with his musical sensibilities and a deeply-seated yearning for being a great artist.
Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) is the aforementioned disciple. The 24-year-old is training to become a classical music vocalist. In the midst of the bustling city of Bombay, Sharad meditates over the voice of Maai (voiced by Award-winning Marathi film-maker Sumitra Bhave) as he rides his motorcycle on the empty roads late at night. He listens to her speeches as her music has not been recorded in any form. He has access to these audio tapes (thanks to his father) that he has restored into audio files. Other than constantly performing at competitions, he also works for his friend Kishore (Makarand Mukund). His work there is to restore old tapes, cassettes of rare Hindustani Music into CDs, and sell them at musical concerts. Basically, his life is surrounded by music and vice-versa.
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He is also a dedicated student. Sharad’s life so far has led him to the understanding that learning and dedicating his life to music is a must. He learns from his master while also taking care of his ailments. The veteran musician is a harsh critic but Sharad always follows what he says. Coupled with Maai’s guidance that talks about the profundity of music with a sense of truth, he is doing everything right to get to follow the path of being a great artist. That includes shutting out conversations with his mother and his overbearing grandmother who wants him to get a ‘real job,’ just so he could practice his craft.
All the cogs on the wheel are in the right place – except the fact that Sharad just isn’t good enough. Like every other person on the earth, he is flawed. He occasionally succumbs to his desires as we see him jerk off to porn. He is unable to fight the lonesome journey to being an artist as he approaches a co-musician by holding her hand – only to be rejected in return. He revels in self-doubt and questions his ability constantly. Being inherently flawed and expecting to get famous are some of the things that don’t go with Maai’s preachings. However, he decides to keep going with all that he has in him.
At this juncture, ‘The Disciple‘ jumps in time. The occasional punctuations in the narrative that were filled with either him meditating, riding a bike, or casual lookbacks at his early life with his father vanish into thin air. Don’t get me wrong! Tamhane doesn’t mess up with the tone and overall feel of the narrative. A slight shift in the color scheme and the overall weight (both literal and metaphorical) that decades of dedication towards music have put on Sharad come to the foreground. In one of the sequences, we see him shut-out the earphone that he dedicatedly listened to on one of his bike rides. The changing times have not left him unharmed either. Though he still practices his ragas and performs in front of an audience, the daily grind and life’s inevitability have left his soul dry. CDs are now replaced by USB drives and having a website and a YouTube channel are a must for every aspiring musician.
In one of my favorite scenes, Sharad – who is now also a mentor to a few children in a music academy, lashes out at a student for trying to join a band. Even though Sharad’s point of him joining a fusion band while only being a beginner in classic music isn’t entirely wrong, you can see clear signs of his frustration with himself.
Tamhane’s film is actually a multi-layered, multi-faceted character study that uses its strong sense of place to tell an essential tale about having to live with one’s own mediocrity. The shades of melancholy that travel through the ambitious foresight of Tamhane’s narrative are incredibly well-realized and thought of. As a filmmaker who is only two films old, the Marathi director shows an extraordinary flair for telling stories.
While Court (2014) was more of a fly-on-the-wall approach, with ‘The Disciple‘, he gets in a more subjective, emotionally involving, and personal headspace. Alfonso Cuarón who mentored Tamhane post his critically successful first film serves as an Executive Producer here. His influence can be seen in almost every shot composition and gentle camera movement that is used throughout the film. Much like Cuarón’s ‘Roma,’ the shots here are breathtaking. They are almost too perfect and the overall impact they leave on the viewers is greatly enhanced with the ethereal beauty of Hindustani Classical Music.
With ‘The Disciple‘ Tamhane has really amped up his writing. The script here completely inhabits the world that Tamhane wanted to create. I wasn’t quite big on Court – which used its slow pace as a metaphor for the slowness of the judiciary system in the country but the script just wasn’t captivating enough to accompany the reason for the slow pace. In ‘The Discipline’ the pacing never feels like a problem as the film is filled with sequences that have a true meaning to the overall themes that the director wants to explore.
The ethos explored here are pretty universal. This is why unfamiliarity with Classical music doesn’t take away anything from the overall experience. The film is not just a profound study of an unsung and failed artist but also an arduous journey about the emptiness of being a dreamer. It is about an aspiring talent who has closed his eyes to the realities of the world so that he can find refuge in art.
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We as children are often bought up with a saying that if you constantly follow a dream with perception and understanding, you will achieve it. Examples of great artists, legends, and prodigies are thrown our way so that we don’t really question the reality of a self-imposed facade. ‘The Disciple‘ is as much about being dedicated to a dream as it is about the slow and painful death of aspirations.
The grounded reality that the film explores has been explored in numerous other films. However, this film – which spans around three decades of Sharad’s life revels in the profound philosophy that all of us eventually grow out of our self-made bubbles and dreamy ambitions to embrace the realities of life. A life that keeps going no matter what.
The Disciple Trailer
‘THE DISCIPLE’ WAS SCREENED AT THE 2020 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
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DIRECTOR: Chaitanya Tamhane
CAST: Aditya Modak, Dr. Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave, Deepika Bhide Bhagwat, Kiran Yadnyopavit, Abhishek Kale, Neela Khedkar, Makarand Mukund, Kristy Banerjee, Prasad Vanarse
LANGUAGES: Marathi, Hindi
RUNTIME: 127 MINS
LINKS: TIFF, IMDB
The Disciple currently has only one negative review on Rotten Tomatoes and the Indian release date for the movie is yet to be announced.