On screen, Hindustani classical musicians have been mostly played as caricatures, venerable otherworldly figures in shawls or eccentric comics. Till Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple hit Netflix with a slow-burning story of an idealistic young khayal singer’s existential struggle.

Here finally was a film that spoke of the joy and terror of being an inheritor of a formidable legacy, the complexity of guru-shishya ties and the desperate fight for recognition and space. And the best part – it had a cast of real-life musicians, not actors hamming it wildly.

You would have thought the film would be greeted with whoops of joy by the fraternity but what The Disciple has done is split it right down the middle. Between those who believe it insults a grand tradition and those who see it as a long-awaited call for change. Between those who feel betrayed by it and those who are thrilled that their innermost pangs and insecurities have found a voice.

Across social media and in private interactions, reactions from classical musicians have ranged from applause to dismay and, often, anger. Their grouse is often literal: Why couldn’t the guru have been a better mentor? Why not show the disciple finding some success with all that riyaz? Why couldn’t he pick another creative path? Why show him masturbating? How could he be made to walk out in the middle of a recital? This is not cinema, this is our life and this is how the world will perceive us, say musicians.

“This was way too close to my heart for me to be okay with all that bleakness, at least initially that was my reaction,” said Hindustani vocalist Devaki Pandit. “It did dare to show some truths but then these are not all the truths, and, no, not all of them are this depressing.”


Out Of Tune

The “disciple” of the film’s title is Sharad Nerulkar, an ideal shishya played by Aditya Modak, who passionately believes in the inviolable sacredness of his art. But his search for sublimity is tangled in self-doubt and the depressing mismatch between his reality and the myths about sanskar, suffering and sacrifice.

The commonest and most anguished argument against the film has been that it leaves an already fragile system with limited audiences and resources no room for hope by deliberately picking the saddest of stories.

“The film simply doesn’t create a good mahaul [atmosphere] for Hindustani music, especially at a time when the pandemic has left us so vulnerable,” said Hindustani vocalist Manjusha Kulkarni Patil. “It could put youngsters off classical music – why would they take to a tradition where success is unattainable as the film shows? The film has upset me with the sort of negative prachar [messaging]. Why not show the shishya moving ahead with his guru’s wisdom, benefitting from the sewa?”

One analogy cited was with Pather Panchali, whose realism, as the complaint ran in 1980, “exported” India’s poverty. The Disciple, by dint of being available on a global viewing platform like Netflix, could similarly give classical music an image problem.

Among the cynics, there is little acknowledgment of the fact cinema does not necessarily offer happy endings. Or even that criticism could come from a place of concern and love.

“The film shows the reality of an average disciple’s struggles but if this film is anyone’s first exposure to classical music, it could send out negative vibes. I would have loved a film on a successful musician,” said veteran sarod player Tejendra Narayan Majumdar. He points to Bandish Bandits, an OTT series, which, for all its kitsch, shows the “victory of classical music”.

Right Notes

Younger musicians have reacted with greater objectivity to the film’s narrative, seeing it as only one story among the hundreds that can be told about Indian classical music. It need not be the only or the ultimate film on it.

“It was a brilliant film on disillusionment in a musician’s life that hit very close to home,” said vocalist Samarth Nagarkar. “It is true that a lot of vulnerable students of classical music don’t have the ability to filter the banalities out of the profundities. I was amazed at how it got some of the private moments between a guru and the shishya so right. The film is not judgemental – it does show the guru behan succeeding where the protagonist does not. There was no right or wrong. It was what it was.”

Credit: Zoo Entertainment/Netflix

At what point should the romanticisation of the truisms around a tradition end and where should the search for the truth begin? “We have put a lot of things on a high pedestal, but how relevant are they?” asked sitar player Shubhendra Rao. “The film forced me to question myself many times.”

None of the musicians actually denied the hard realities the film reflects, especially the fact it is a long and painstaking climb to the top and there are no guarantees you will get there even if you are dedicated and devoted.

“It is certainly a ruthless field with no room for mediocrity,” said Devaki Pandit. “You have to be extraordinary every single time you are on stage. It isn’t enough to be good as is the case in other lines. And the toughest part is that you are being constantly compared to the old legends.”

Voice Of Reason

The Disciple’s focus is centred on the khayal, a meditative vocal form that unfurls exactly as the name suggests, like a thought. This is a field where even more than in instrumental music and the so-called “semi-classical” variants such as thumri, tradition rules with an iron hand. With a niche listenership and a dozen names monopolising the concert circuit, the struggles are more fraught. It is also a world where the guru’s power and benediction can make or break with greater finality. It is hardly surprising then that classical artistes are most defensive about the idea of a guru, played in the film by seasoned vocalist Arun Dravid, a shishya of Kishori Amonkar, a rigorous task master herself.

“The guru’s task is also to point out a student’s limitations, suggest alternate creative paths,” argued vocalist Gauri Pathare. “I feel that this has not been thought through in the film. Khayal is a volatile form, its limitations are its strengths too and you can make what you want of it.”

Hindi films on classical music such as Goonj Uthi Shehnai, Baiju Bawra, Sur Sangam and Alaap have mostly idolised the unquestionable supremacy of the guru. The one film that all musicians love to cite as their favourite is the 1980 Telugu superhit Sankarabharanam set in feudal India. It tells the story of a Brahmin Carnatic genius who takes a sex worker and later her son under his wings. The film is an unabashed tribute to the triumph of guru bhakti.

“I loved Sankarabharanam’s wondrous look at the enduring quality of the guru shishya parampara,” said sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee, who did not find The Disciple and its “archaic and anachronistic” view of classical world interesting beyond a point. “If there are dark aspects to a tradition that yield great art, then well, it is up to the young to make what want they want of it. Even jazz and western classical music stories often grew from a place of exploitation and terrible politics. My only takeaway from the film is that maybe our tradition needs to become more inclusive and open.”

In the film, the young protagonist is guided by the glacial voice of the ascetic-guru, Maai, who demands absolute and total renunciation. She never appears on screen but her stern exhortations are at the heart of Nerulkar’s angst. “The fact that you hang around great people will not make you great,” she points out. A musician is not a careerist, she says, he or she is a sadhak, a seeker whose search never ends in this life or the next.

Far from being the reflection of a long-gone time, these impossible pressures are all too contemporary, says Milind Malshe, vocalist and teacher at the Indian Institute of Technology-Mumbai. He points to his own struggle to choose between music and academia. “The film’s reality may be a dampener, but these are not exaggerations,” he said. “A lot of gurus still demand 100% dedication at the cost of all else – family life, the need to earn a livelihood. They hesitate to call it a profession but that is what it is, because a market for it exists. And it is a hard one to survive in.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.