Into the inner world of a disciple

A scene from the film The Disciple   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple remains firmly anchored in its appointed space, time and social world — Mumbai in the early 2000s. This enables the film to cast off the tired cinematic tropes, such as gilded royal courts and stone-melting miracles, through which Hindustani music has been conventionally represented from Baiju Bawra (1952) to Bandish Bandits (2020). Deriving from pedagogic parables, such films have typically offered a David-Goliath tale, set on an exclusionary binary of musical philosophies. The underdog hero’s ‘spiritual’ music, through trials and tribulations, vanquishes his antithesis, a worldly virtuoso in a climactic musical sequence.

In contrast, The Disciple brings us forward to the legacy of this dichotomy, as the spiritual-material dualism is internalised in the protagonist Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak). His guru Pt. Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid), as a barely known but critically acclaimed musician, represents the slow-yielding austerities of this tradition and expects stoic patience and dedication from his students. But is Sharad up to this formidable task?

The film’s two halves and a brief third act trace Sharad’s struggles, first as a young student in 2004, and later, as a professional Hindustani vocalist in 2017. The film establishes its twin focal points promptly: the disciple Sharad and the social world of Hindustani music. The deftly executed inaugural scene begins with Tamhane’s signature static wide shot that reveals a vocal concert in progress and concludes with a slow push-in on the enraptured tanpura accompanist, Sharad.

The broad canvas afforded by static shots enables a rich, quotidian realism to emerge from the margins throughout the film: for instance, in the first frame, a gentleman ambles in midway through the concert, blissfully ignorant of the video-recording that he interrupts, and is ushered to a seat by a young volunteer — an otherwise unremarkable detail that enriches the overall mise én scene of the frame. In contrast, the camera is much more solicitous when Sharad’s inner world is its focus, as seen in the push-in shot.

Director Chaitanya Tamhane (right) and producer Vivek Gomber at the premiere of The Disciple during the 77th edition of the Venice Film Festival on September 4, 2020

Director Chaitanya Tamhane (right) and producer Vivek Gomber at the premiere of The Disciple during the 77th edition of the Venice Film Festival on September 4, 2020   | Photo Credit: AP

Modernist palette

In keeping with its general modernist palette, the film moves forward through unremarkable micro-events that gain momentary significance for the protagonist, without necessarily propelling any drastic or lasting change. For instance, early on, we see Sharad prepare diligently for an intercollegiate competition, which he does not win. This seems to disappoint him considerably, although in the larger scheme its impact diminishes quite quickly. Likewise, a decent performance at the end of the first half seems to leave him untouched.

Sharad’s musical ideas are governed by a set of lecture recordings of a legendary musician called ‘Mai’, late teacher to both his father and guru. Mai stubbornly insists on ascetic renunciation, scoffing at those that link music to pleasure. Sharad listens to these commandments like daily prayer, programming himself against every gratification.While he anxiously craves musical greatness, this indiscriminating conviction in Mai’s wrinkled pontifications splits him up, causing his personal relationships, desires and even finances to suffer.

Most tragically, he seems to lose any joy in the music itself. Ambition strains the sublime, reducing it to humourless deadweight. Possible redemption arrives, although it is rejected, in the caricatured figure of the crude, hedonistic musicc ollector who berates such high discourse as hot air that fortifies the myths that fans love about musicians. The film, however, remains conveniently non-committal on its musical philosophy in the true spirit of the Gorakhnath ulatbānsi that brings it to a close.

There’s much to like about the film. Like Tamhane’s highly acclaimed Court (2014), The Disciple’s strength also lies in its textured sociological realism in delineating the world of Hindustani music in Mumbai. However, this is at times achieved at the cost of Sharad’s individual story; notably, his backstory remains half-baked and neglected. Contrary to the hints of a difficult father, the flashbacks give us a portrait of an affectionate man, not a stubborn tyrant, only adding to the confusion. In the second half of the film especially, the protagonist is treated as an excuse to introduce other characters and interlocutors from the musical field. The scenes turn like staccato snaps in a photoalbum, without a film’s fluidity.

Long road ahead

While we see his frustration, the disjointed tonality fails to add up to his motivations. In the second half, Sharad’s cohorts have moved ahead in life — for instance, Sneha has achieved both personal and professional success. She has married and has performed in the U.S. besides being in demand on the local concert circuit. Sharad has been prepared for the long road, but such milestones have eluded him. Talent-hunt shows and fusion bands are lucrative shortcuts for some, but Sharad is too far down a different path. However, the overall schadenfreude of his life and the cyclicality of his impatient ambition and failure do not quite prepare us for his eventual enervation. We are set up for a jumpy tragedy that unfortunately never quite arrives.

The second half concludes with one of the film’s finest scenes. As the camera arcs patiently from behind the stage to the front, we hear Sharad desperately trying but failing to find the notes in his Malhār. The tension is reinforced by a brilliant glance shared between the tanpura accompanists. By the time the camera completes the arc and pushes in, Sharad’s music has completely imploded.

The film’s realism benefits immensely from Aneesh Pradhan’s realistic music design. Conventionally, given time constraints, music directors use a finished-product style of song to stand in for the elaborative and improvisatory khayāl. Pradhan circumvents this artifice by principally moving in and out of musical sequences in medias res, employing the spiralling and accretive linearity of khayāl to represent the whole performance. Imperfections of the voice are retained purposefully. However, Murad Ali’s sarangi for Vinayak Pradhan’s accompaniment in the harmonium-haunted Mumbai is a momentary slip into socio-musical idealism.

The Disciple’s struggle-and-failure story holds universal appeal beyond the musical domain. But its more significant achievement is that it proves to be relatable and recognisable within it.

The writer is a PhD scholar at King’s College London.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 10:16:08 PM |

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