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Pick of the Week: The Disciple

The second feature film from director par excellence, Chaitanya Tamhane, The Disciple is a stunning depiction of one man’s search for the truth about his artistic ability.

It led the way at the Venice International Film Festival Awards in September 2020, and was made under the guidance of Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, who is a co-producer on the film along with actor-producer Vivek Gomber. The film seals Tamhane’s place amongst a rare breed of emerging filmmaking talent from across the globe.

In an early scene, we see Sharad, a devoted student of Indian classical music, out with two friends shopping for kurtas for their performance in an upcoming singing competition. When Sharad thinks out loud about buying a shawl as well, one of his friends guffaws and sarcastically suggests he buy a gold chain too, since he is going all out. Sharad responds by saying, “Father used to say, once you’re on stage, everything is part of the performance.”

In a later scene, an older and more restless Sharad, on being asked by his guru if he has been practicing his music regularly, responds with, “I do nothing but practice.” These two sentences form the crux of the conflict in Chaitanya Tamhane’s meditative new film, The Disciple, which chronicles the life and journey of classical vocalist Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) and his relationship with his gurus, as he strives for a seemingly elusive mastery of his craft.

Sharad is a devoted disciple of Pandit Vinayak Pradhan, a noted vocalist from the Alwar Gharana. He massages the old man’s tired limbs, pays for his doctor’s appointments, and is present at his beck and call.

Sharad practices everyday and adheres to a strict regimen and diet in order to keep his voice pristine. He is convinced that he has inherited his ‘love’ for classical music from his father, who was a singer and had authored a number of books about the subject. Through warm, telling flashbacks we see how a young Sharad basks in his father’s company, classical music and singing lessons becoming a conduit between father and son, despite them robbing him of Sundays playing cricket with friends.

His guru and father both revere the late ‘Maai,’ a legendary vocalist and teacher who promoted austerity and did not perform in public, nor allow anyone to record her singing. Sharad’s intense desire to accomplish what both his gurus have is palpable in his meagre everyday life which he lives with blinders on in the bustling, modern metropolis of Mumbai; one he is ready to give up entirely, just as his gurus did, for his music, his shoulders laden with archaic teachings and a rusty musical legacy.

A recurring shot in the film is that of Sharad plugging in his earphones, switching on his rare, taped lectures of Maai, and riding off on his bike through empty streets, late into the night. In the recordings, played against the soothing sound of the tanpura, a sound which forms the backbone of the entire film, she talks about what it means to be a classical vocalist and the hardships it demands.

Sharad’s face is stoic, as if he’s trying to remind himself, over and over, that he would rely on her every word, believing that if he persists enough and doesn't let a single word uttered by his teachers drop to the floor, he’ll achieve the stage at the age they did; it being the proper way to do so. Submerged in the rigours of classical music and the lore surrounding his gurus, Sharad is a man treading the border between desire and morality; stuck in no man’s land, between Maai’s teachings and his own yearning to be known and revered.

Director Chaitanya Tamhane takes on the depths of Sharad Nerulkar’s existential crisis head on. He is a filmmaker who is fiercely intent on discovering the truth behind the conflicts that plague his characters. The film’s edit (by Tamhane himself) follows suit and reveals all, snapping you from your reverie by jumping to starkly unexpected scenes.

For example the cut into Nerulkar being sick before a performance after one of Maai’s hypnotic lectures, or the shot of him masturbating to the sounds of a woman moaning cutting to his guruji’s voice in a singing lesson. Which is also why although the film is languid, it doesn’t feel like it and keeps you engrossed the length of its two hour duration.

Aditya Modak lends authenticity to Sharad’s role because of his own bearing as a classical vocalist, his composed face completely devoid of the turmoil within. And perhaps because he is already familiar with having to make sense of the rigours of Indian classical music in the modern world, Sharad’s stoicism comes all too naturally to him. But we also see his irritation and the need to uphold his self-imposed legacy escape subtly, not too much, not too little, through Modak’s intriguing performance of measured melancholia. The supporting cast of Arun Dravid as Guruji, Kiran Yadnopavit as his father and Sumitra Bhave as the voice of Maai also form a formidable shadow over his character.

Amidst the vastness and complexity of both Indian classical music and self-doubt, Tamhane’s direction confidently steers viewers towards the mood of a scene (often with limited, crisp dialogue delivering its point). For instance, pairing Sharad’s nighttime drives with Maai’s steady, pragmatic voice makes one feel completely absorbed in the moment, to the point where you aren’t even watching him anymore, but are hooked, as if in a deep dhyan-like trance, to her lectures. And yet, suddenly, you find yourself in Sharad’s head.

It would not be unexpected for viewers to leave this film feeling discomforted, terrified even. It digs into the most untouched well of human emotion; one that we push back down as soon as it bubbles up because we live in a world that is quick to discredit its ‘failures,’ like they have been touched by plague, but applauds effort, despite seeing it go misguided into the annals of mediocrity. We are so afraid of ‘failing’ that we find ourselves latching to false promises and intricate, complex legacies which are almost impossible to fulfil.

For Sharad the two are so intertwined, he has forgotten where the values of his Guru-Shishya Parampara end and where his own begin, if they exist. But under Tamhane’s patient, guiding hand and pristine clarity of vision, he eventually faces his own reality and comes to terms with it. Once again, Chaitanya Tamhane stuns with The Disciple, telling us to be brave in the face of all illusions, and to seek out our own personal truths, no matter how difficult that may be.

Now Streaming: Netflix

Chaitanya Tamhane is an Indian writer and director. He made his feature film debut with the critically acclaimed, National Award winning Court, the story of an aging activist who is put on trial for supposedly inciting a manual scavenger's suicide, It was also India's submission for the 88th Academy Awards in the 'Best Foreign Language Film' Category. The Disciple, executive produced by Alfonso Cuaron, is his second feature, which he has edited, in addition to writing and directing it.



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