The world of Hindustani classical music is by design, fiercely esoteric, where masters of the craft flaunt their musical chops with an air of superiority, while their disciples submit wholeheartedly to the pursuit of unblemished perfection. And yet, their tenacious approach in rigidly preserving the ancient traditions passed on to them by their mentors, have unforeseen consequences.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore film The Disciple is an introspective foray into this inherent need to resist change, while juxtaposing it with the ever-changing modern-day truisms of contemporary existence.
The film’s protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), is industrious and steadfast in his approach to master the Khayal musical form. He diligently adheres to the pedantic stipulations of the enigmatic guru Maai (Sumitra Bhave as heard through various recordings) but finds himself unable to meet the expectations of the people around him.
Sharad refuses to get a job, even alienates himself from his mother, with the single-minded aim to achieve perfection in his singing. At the heart of this endeavour is his burning desire for validation and acknowledgement of his hard work — which for him, is hard to come by.
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Thus, when he witnesses the rise of Shaswati Bose (Kristy Banerjee) — a classical singer who transitions to singing commercial tunes for wider outreach — he is repulsed and drawn to her fame simultaneously.
This fans the flames of inner turmoil gripping the protagonists as we chart his journey as a 24-year-old music student in 2006 to a more mature present-day version of himself. Even after gaining a few years and becoming a teacher of the art form himself, he seems as unsure as he was when he started — pouring over YoutTube comments on his videos, jealousy viewing the works of his other contemporaries.
The pent-up frustration that he tries to hide comes bursting out when a student’s mother asks permission for her son to sing in a college fusion band. The way he lashes out at her is uncalled for and yet obvious. He loathes that one might be appreciated for simply adapting to the dictates of popular culture and yet, he is attracted by the lure of a wider audience that motivates a young musician to pander to the masses.
- Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
- Writer: Chaitanya Tamhane
- Cast: Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave
- Runtime: 2 hours 8 minutes
- Storyline: Self-doubt, sacrifice and struggle converge into an existential crisis for a devoted classical vocalist as the mastery he strives for remains elusive
With Mexican filmmaking great Alfonso Cuarón serving as executive producer on the project, the world Sharad inhabits is brought to life by Michal Sobocinski’s deft camerawork, capturing the activities of its characters in congested spaces in Mumbai. The numerous wide shots provide the viewers, a sense of detachment, of not belonging to the world of dingy concert halls and living rooms of private residences. Yet, it pulls them in with various tracking shots of Sharad plying the deserted roads of night-time Mumbai as if to escape from his otherwise ‘enclosed’ existence. Each frame seems to be meticulously constructed, with special attention paid to the mise-en-scène, in pursuit of enriching the story being told.
That, along with the tonality of colours adorning each frame is exquisite and ever-changing, reflecting different moods of its characters and their setting at different junctures of the production. The acting by the central cast is understated, genuine — laying the groundwork for a story that prides itself in not delivering over-the-top moments, but instead chooses to delve into the monotonous nature of everyday existence.
At the heart of the production lies the music as sung by its various characters. The scene where Sharad performs the Raag Bageshri bandish is eloquently shot. His singing emanates a surreal quality, with the potential to intrigue viewers who are uninitiated in Indian classical music.
Similar displays of musical symphonies by Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid) and his other students play a vital role in establishing the musical aesthetics of the film.
A remarkable shot of the protagonist sitting in a crowded compartment of a local train while a beggar goes about singing, asking for money, conveys more than it lets on initially. In a way, it signifies the plight of an artist in need of recognition, monetary or otherwise, for the craft that he practices.
It seems to be a subliminal insight into the psyche of Sharad, who, in his efforts to become a proper musician, feels the same degree of impoverishment and depravity that the appearance of the beggar exudes. And yet the moving train of life seems to be headed in a singular direction, oblivious of the miseries of its inhabitants.
The Disciple is currently streaming on Netflix