The Disciple (2020)

It takes courage and self-discipline to devote yourself fully to an art form. Whiplash (2014) thrillingly portrayed that quest in the story of a young jazz drummer strive to be the best, bloody hands and all, in defiance of a harsh disciplinarian teacher. Chaitanya Tamhane’s beautiful and mesmerising second film The Disciple explores similar themes, but in a calmer, thoughtful and ultimately more devastating manner.

Executive produced by Alfonso Cuarón, the film depicts Sharad Nerulkar (played by musician Aditya Modak), a young man who has dedicated himself to excelling at Indian classical singing under the instruction of his ascetic guruji Maestro Vinayak Pradha (Arun Dravid). Sharad has spent much of his 36 years learning to perform a Hindustani musical form called Khayal, an high-art style with a limited, niche audience; near the start of the film he is wryly warned that if he wants to earn money he should instead sing love songs or film music. Instead, Sharad has chosen to follow an artistic calling, for which he must forego ego and material things.

The question, however, is whether that vocation has chosen him. Sharad is faced with the self-doubt and insecurities of someone who is reluctant to confront the possibility that his self-belief is built on shaky ground.

Although The Disciple is primarily a character study, in essence it contemplates deep questions about artistic callings, about the dichotomy of devotion and ego, about performance and truthfulness, about self-doubt and self-delusion. And despite its unfamiliar milieu the film’s themes should resonate with anyone who has pursued an artistic endeavour no matter how small.

Sharad (Aditya Modak) looks on as his musical guru (Dr Arun Dravid) performs in The Disciple

The film is full of beautiful, complex yet soothing music. Like most western viewers, I am unfamiliar with Indian classical music but this wasn’t a barrier to enjoying the film. If anything, the philistine ignorance of my outsider perspective perhaps reinforced one of the film’s themes of whether the purist niche is partly fuelled by snobbery and phoney elitism, but during the many performances I found myself captivated.

The central musical form of this tradition is the raga, a wordless song form that allows for extensive improvisation and self-expression. Rather than a conventionally defined song with melody and structure, it is more of an improvisational framework based around modes or scales, with fragments of melody that can be woven in at the singer’s discretion. The melodic soloist is accompanied by drums and a drone and sometimes a second melodic instrument that echoes and supports the soloist. No performance is alike and the devotees value originality.

I imagine performing a raga must be like being a tightrope walker without a net. In public performances Sharad mostly just plays the tanpura, a drone instrument and a supportive role, only occasionally given the opportunity to walk the high wire. It’s a great choice of medium to express the dedication and the fearful exposure that’s required when pursuing an artistic calling.

Interestingly, the musical style does not conform to fixed rhythms, there’s no beat or pulse. Musical phrases can be stretched or curtailed, with variations and extemporisation, revisiting melodic fragments. And it struck me that The Disciple‘s structure is very much the same. There’s a lot of recurring scenes: scenes of musical performances and competitions, of Sharad being instructed by his teacher, of Sharad’s childhood, and of Sharad arguing with his aunt / landlady about his vocation. Each recurrence slightly different, bringing more nuance and understanding. This film is more about contemplation and development rather than a driven forward momentum.

There are also many mesmerising slow-motion scenes of Sharad riding on his motorbike through the quiet night streets of Mumbai, listening on headphones to the lectures of a long-dead female guru named Maai (voiced by Indian director Sumitra Bhave). Maai’s recordings, discussing her philosophy towards the art, are a kind of holy text for Sharad and allow the film to express a sort of inner voice for the relatively taciturn Sharad, expressing what he would like to become.

Because central to the film, and at its emotional core, is how Sharad’s own identity has become defined by his chosen vocation so much that he can’t separate himself from it. It’s linked to his childhood – his father was a devotee and the music was instilled in Sharad’s upbringing. It’s also the reason (or perhaps his excuse) that he is unmarried, solitary and poor.

As we come to understand this, it becomes heart-breaking to see the quiet devastation on his face when is subjected to harsh criticism from his teacher or his competition hopes are dashed. He receives these rebukes as such deeply personal failings. It’s even more agonising to see him faced with his own creative inadequacies during performance, he desperately wants his improvisations to soar with inventiveness, but what comes out is mediocre and uninspired. It’s a testament to the film’s direction and Modak’s understated yet expressive acting that we recognise this acutely even though the musical form is so unfamiliar.

The young Sharad receives a lesson on Indian classical music from his father (Kiran Yadnyopavit), in The Disciple

The film also explores the integrity of high-minded authenticity. The quiet asceticism of this musical craft is almost religious, but secular temptations are ever-present and alluring.

We are jolted from our calm by scenes from an Indian TV talent show, a version of Pop Idol. Glamourous and alluring video billboard ads glow in the blue night, reminscent of the oversized Vegas hologram in Blade Runner 2049. Sharad is quietly attracted to these popular trivialities though he would never admit it. There’s a cruel irony when we see him attentively choosing the right costume for a performance – not to fancy, not too plain – as if his material appearance is at least as important as the music he performs. And yet he is affronted when challenged by a suggestion that his own idols engage in their own kind of artifice, have a tarnished purity.

This contemplative and beguiling film is beautifully shot, cinematographer Michał Sobociński casts Mumbai with golden glow and a quietly observant eye. The camera is mostly static and entire scenes are sometimes blocked in a single frame, though the camera will sometimes gently pan or dolly forwards during the musical performances. And there’s a subtle use of shifting focus to pick out the actors understated performances. It all adds to an air of calm.

I really enjoyed Chaitanya Tamhane’s film. What seemed initially to be just a well-acted, understated character study with some beautiful music turned out to be a more profound meditation on artistic calling. It was both an invitation to experience an unfamiliar culture and an exploration of themes that are universal and resonant.

The Disciple will stream in the London Film Festival on 7th October 2020 at 9pm.

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