Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is an unorthodox movie about a revered artistic tradition. The journey of Sharad Nerulkar, a Hindustani classical vocalist from Mumbai, is also the mapping of the pursuit of perfection, the relationship between mentors and pupils, the conversation between staying pure and selling out, and the burden of legacy.
The Marathi movie is being streamed on Netflix. The Disciple follows Sharad (Aditya Modak) over a decade, during which the second-generation singer attempts to establish himself and crawl out from under the shadow of his father, popular masters and his guru, Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid).
Sharad is devoted to his teacher as well as diligent to a fault. His every waking minute is spent on practice and preserving the history of classical music. When he isn’t exercising his vocal chords, Sharad is immersed in listening to recorded lectures by Sindhutai, an Annapurna Devi-like recluse who considers music a search for the divine and an end unto itself.
The tremulous voice heard on Sharad’s headphones and inside his head is provided by filmmaker Sumitra Bhave. Sindhutai valourises the struggle involved in an “eternal quest” that comes with little reward. Learn to be lonely and hungry, Sindhutai says – advice that Sharad increasingly finds difficult to follow.
The narrative unfolds between 2006 and 2016, cassette tapes and CDs, promise and setbacks. As the classical music scene moves from analogue to digital, Sharad finds himself moving backwards. Sharad’s decline is mirrored by his guru’s increasingly precarious health, and is smoothened along by the realisation that the rules that worked for the previous generation may not hold for a younger one.
Tamhane, who has also written and edited the film, keeps his subject at the distance that exists between the singer on the stage and the listeners in the audience. Tamhane used the distancing effect beautifully in his debut feature, in which a Leftist poet is jailed for daring to speak against injustice. In Court, the absurdities and cruelties of the judicial process vividly came through especially because they were viewed from afar – an unfair contest seen in long shot, with little scope for intervention.
But in The Disciple, the same approach does not always work. It is an impeccably crafted movie, with the right pauses and intonation for the most part. Like many beautiful objects, it is lovely to gaze at but stays hidden behind a glass case.
The use of long and mid-long shots and the frontal shooting style by Polish cinematographer Michal Sobocinski place the viewer in vantage position but also at a remove from Sharad’s existential predicament. Sobocinski’s amber tones emphasise the movie’s view of the guru-shishya tradition as fossilised and Sharad as a specimen worthy of study but not necessarily of empathy.
Tamhane takes immense care to build up a world that he fully intends to demolish. The director’s careful attention to detail and composer Aneesh Pradhan’s music design faithfully recreate Sharad’s middle-class Maharashtrian milieu and the concert halls where he soldiers on. The mostly non-professional cast is drawn from the classical music scene. Lead actor Aditya Modak is a trained singer himself.
The first-time actor does a fine job of enlivening a character in imminent danger of calcification. Like the titular protagonist from Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, the dour, monomaniacal Sharad eludes categorisation. Is he a victim of a system that bestows stardom on an elite and rotating bunch of singers? Does he lack the spark needed to graduate from apprentice to master?
Is Shard like the son of the engineer and doctor who feels joylessly compelled to follow his father’s path? Is he unsung or actually not a good enough singer?
The 128-minute movie refuses to commit to any one position. The Disciple eschews the traditional, triumphal arc of movies about musicians, preferring instead to chronicle middling talent rather than the extremes of putative genius or misguided effort. The conceit holds well for much of the film, but unravels when the narrative wanders into uncharted territory.
A debate about the impact of televised musical reality shows could have been a whole other movie. Indeed, this debate inspired the Amazon Prime Video web series Bandish Bandits in 2020.
Tamhane isn’t interested in the reductive arguments peddled by Bandish Bandits. Yet, if there is vibrancy and creativity or a genuine sense of achievement and satisfaction in the Hindustani classical music scene, it is elsewhere, far beyond the small and stifling world into which the director has placed Sharad.
Your music lacks life, Vinayak admonishes Sharad. The Disciple is perhaps too successful in portraying a sclerotic universe that cannot accommodate the restless, the outre, or even the purist. The movie undermines the mythos associated with the venerated performing art and replaces it with nothingness. Between excellence and ordinariness lies not the middle ground but a void that swallows up Sharad and sometimes the movie too.