Numerous films have tried to portray the anguish and struggles of pursuing art but they often end up fetishising the journey of an artist, rather than providing viewers with actual insights. It's baffling to say the least, considering how often filmmakers, in reality, go through the same struggles. Maybe it's because an artist's journey is treated as a separate art, especially these days when every major studio is busy making biopics of famous artists, trying to immortalise them. This gross romanticism leads to an impure version of an artist's life and struggles, where the artist is treated as a sacred entity. This school of filmmaking threatens the introspective aspect of films by making them look like the cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia page. Chaitanya Tamhane's second film, The Disciple, thus becomes a sight of rare beauty that closely needs to be observed with a magnifying glass.
The film, which revolves around an aspiring Hindustani classical singer, is a complex and contemplative meditative piece about an artist's dilemma and his insecurities. It has been slowly and carefully brewed to take viewers inside the convoluted corridors of an artist's mind, and then it slowly dismantles the myth around artists, in order to humanise them. Sharad Nerulkar is a young man who is training to become a Hindustani classical singer. He was promised greatness in his childhood and now he is chasing it with all the air in his lungs. But something's wrong. His self-restraint and discipline aren't able to compensate for his lack of imagination. He simply wants to fill in the spaces other people have drawn for him, never once questioning the nature of it.
Sharad wants to become like his guru or, worse, like his guru's guru, known in the film as Maai. He listens to the recordings of Maai's preachings over contemplative bike rides at night and imagines himself recreating her greatness. Sharad even moulds himself after his Guru's words, thus becoming a true disciple. Little does he know that disciples always fly under their masters' shadows. Soon, as the clock of mortality starts ticking, this realisation slowly settles into his heart, but not before plunging him into the deep, dark alleys of jealousy, uncertainty and self-pity. Sharad's arrogance and stubbornness thus take him from a passionate and promising young disciple to a frustrated and unsatisfied middle-aged man who has slowly lost all his inhibitions, waiting for greatness to knock on his doors.
The Disciple asks whether greatness is something that can ever be purposely attained or an aftertaste of imagination, innovation and destiny. But the film isn't naïve enough to provide us with easy answers. In fact, there are no answers. Like Sharad himself, we are left grappling with the aftermath of harsh realities.
The themes of destiny and greatness aren't exactly new but the way The Disciple mixes them with the world of Hindustani classical is riveting, to say the least. But if you are apprehensive of the fact that the film can be alienating for some since it's set in the hugely blanketed world of Hindustani classical, you couldn't be more wrong. The film isn't 'about' Hindustani classical music. It merely uses the ancient charm and aura of this world to tell an intimate tale of an artist's dilemma. But then why set your film in this world, one must ask? Why not choose a more accessible art form? There are plenty of reasons that Chaitanya chose to set his story in this world but the most apparent one would be that Hindustani classical is an art form that often revolves around lineage and therefore remains an art form that hasn't evolved much with time. Hugely devoid of any popular media attention, this art form makes for a difficult life.
All this gives Chaitanya a chance to dive deeper into the trappings of this world and talk about various important themes around art and the pursuit of it. Themes such as the capitalist side of an art form that, despite enabling an artist to make money off their art, ends up making it impure at some level, or the age-old clash of tradition and modernity that every generation faces, are shown in the film with delicate measures. There's a particular scene that beautifully sketches out the latter theme. Sharad gets a call from the students of his guru. His guru has grown old and pale and often has tremendous pain in his legs and back. They inform him of the pain he is in and Sharad goes to visit him. When he gets there, he asks the two young students whether they massaged his legs or not, since this was something he religiously used to do when he was training. The two youngsters say they didn't and Sharad gets irritated at their ignorant ways. But are the students at fault, asks the film? The youngsters are here to learn and have no place serving their guru in ways that won't help improve their singing. When they are made to leave, even their act of touching their elder's feet seems mechanical, almost a force of habit as opposed to genuine respect. The film is filled with subtle scenes like this that lend weight to the narrative and make it rich.
Another important and often dismissed theme that is shown quite frankly in the film is austerity and the loneliness that comes with it. Since Hindustani classical music is a life-long pursuit of absolute perfection, it requires solitude and distance from the various temptations of modern life. Sharad also accepts this wholeheartedly since this advice comes from the teachings of Maai, a singer whose ways of life and mythical aura attract Sharad. But Sharad's enamoured mind doesn't register this with caution. He looks at it as a sacrifice to achieve greatness. This loneliness mirrors the way Sharad's guru lives his life. He is an old man who lives in a small room and has no one except his students, particularly Sharad, to look after him. It is Sharad who goes with him for medical check-ups and even pays for his medical bills. And later in the film, Sharad even gets some shows for his guru and travels with him to those shows. Thus their journey comes full circle with this. The man who was supposed to propel Sharad to greatness has become pale and dependent on Sharad himself. As Sharad begins to age, he submits to his temptations, and Maai's words begin to feel like a distant dream to him.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, with so much to say, the film would have been a convoluted and underwhelming mess, but Chaitanya is skilled enough to tackle each of the said themes without letting the narrative dip. The Disciple never seems like it's making a point. The ruminative narrative of the film is imbued with gorgeously filmed musical performances that seamlessly transport you to the concerts. Polish cinematographer Michal Sobociński delicately places his camera and uses wide shots to give the film a lively feel. This was also seen in Chaitanya's debut film Court, where wide shots were used to capture the daily Kafkaesque attitude of our judiciary. In The Disciple, the same technique is used to bring out the magnificence of Hindustani classical music. Watching the beautifully captured classical performances in the film does something to you; it sends you into a trance where you feel the magic that burns inside Sharad. It's pure cinema.
Chaitanya occasionally uses close-ups, which increase the film's impact. It is through these shots that Chaitanya takes you inside Sharad's world and psyche, immaculately capturing the decay of an artist. There are numerous scenes in the film where Sharad rides around the empty roads of Mumbai at night on his bike, listening to the recordings of Maai. These scenes are captured in glorious slow motion with the shrill and sumptuous voiceover of Maai in the background. These scenes are hypnotic, to say the least. You feel the hold of Maai on the arc of Sharad and as the film progresses, you tend to become wary of Maai (as does Sharad). The Disciple uses sight and sound to give you an immersive experience that isn't easy to shake off for days.
A lot has been written about Aditya Modak, who plays Sharad Nerulkar with absolute perfection, carving the troubling state of an artist's mind with astute beauty. His transformation isn't merely external (he gained weight for the role for the latter part of the film) but internal. The thirst, dreams and hope in his eyes early on in the film are replaced by anguish, jealousy and confusion when he realises that he may not have 'it' and may have spent his whole life chasing a lost cause. Since Chaitanya's film mostly relies on visuals, Aditya uses his eyes to convey Sharad's thoughts and his inner turmoil. Aditya delivers a captivating performance that is a sight to behold. His training as a classical singer also adds to the authenticity of the film and makes Aditya one with Sharad. It's a performance that you witness once in a blue moon.
Chaitanya Tamhane has emerged as one of the most original voices and skilful filmmakers around the world. He has become a tour de force and while this was evident from Court, The Disciple cements this position. His is a rare voice and it is evident in his films. The way he captures the seemingly mundane rituals of everyday life and extracts meaningful arguments from them is nothing short of genius. And yet Chaitanya's films don't scream for attention, nor do they promise entertainment. They break conventions, yet remain subtle. The Disciple is ingenious filmmaking that must be experienced by everyone who's interested in the fine tunings of an artist's life.