Through the first half of The Disciple (streaming on Netflix), our protagonist seems to be losing himself in the sea of Raags and musical interludes. His days are regimented as if in an army training camp. His nights are lonely. Everything revolves around mastering each note and orienting the mind like an ascetic who fathers that note. His guruji and the guruji’s guru believe that achieving that state of perfection will take decades, or forever.
I was sure the film would see Sharad (the hypnotic Aditya Modak) sink further into his obsession with perfecting the mind, body and soul of a classical Indian singer; that this film would follow the likes of Whiplash, or some of Aronofsky’s work (Black Swan, Pi). Sharad’s blind idolisation of his guru (Arun Dravid) is established in the very first shot when the camera pans to his face in awe of the singer in the throes of his artistry; cut to Sharad giving him a massage: the athlete and the trainer, in a co-dependent relationship. For Sharad, the guru is the father he would have preferred to have, the living embodiment of the destiny his own father could only wish for. There is even a Ryan Gosling’s La La Land-style rant about supremacy of classical music. It looks like he is THE artist in the making, and the film is his tale of going through the wringer.
If there was any doubt left, the flashbacks dissipate it by giving us a typically ambitious parent passing on his failed dreams to his child. Andre Agassi’s legacy, Dangal and, most recently, Saina featured such a parent, who robbed the child of childhood by burdening him/her with their failed ambitions. The resulting resentment is obvious, if not always cinematically depicted. It is even justified. But the resentment is almost always harboured by an otherwise successful champion. So you too, expect Sharad to end up as a damaged star, in all his lavish misery. You see his rising selfishness; you see the essential loneliness and melancholy that has seeped into him like an illness; you even empathise with the mournful darkness of his life, for you know he will succeed at the cost of his sanity.
The audience isn’t initiated to the world of Indian classical music; it can’t tell one false note from another. The makers know this, hence a Queen’s Gambit-style of expression-conveying-verdict is deployed. Just like each move during a chess match was juxtaposed with the opponent and/or audience’s reaction, here we see the disciples telling us, the naïve viewer, if the singer has hit it out of the park or ‘is scattered’. The subtleties, the cadences of the artform are mirrored by the softness of hand gestures and facial movements that the performers use to choreograph or communicate emotion. But only the exterior of this artistry is sophisticated. The interior is hardcore, moulded through extremes of meditation and hours of riyaaz, similar to the extremes of ballet in Black Swan.
‘He presents the state through the medium of the raag,’ a terse Maai (Sharad’s guru’s guru) says. She is the elusive destination of Sharad’s quest. Her voiceover – which starts as an in-commute podcast for him, giving him solace and clarity of ambition in the murky intangibility of his journey, with a literal slowing down of his world – transforms into a voice of conscience. His ‘state’ however, is in its own flux, just like the countless ceiling fans hovering over the performance halls, indifferent to the vocal acrobatics going on below them. This is where the motive of the maker becomes clear. It was never Chazelle or Aronofsky. It was Ceylan.
In Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree (2018), his protagonist Sinan has just returned to his hometown after graduating from university. We watch as he looks down on the townsmen, loathes his father secretly, and gets into meandering debates with his old friends. But the final scene reveals him digging a well alongside his father, a hopeless endeavour but one that signifies an identity coming full circle. The three-hour-long slow-burn drama was just to justify this defeat. We follow Sinan deceiving himself and us about his misplaced superiority, asking us to wallow in pity as we watch a misunderstood genius being denied opportunity in a country going through economic turmoil. But deep down, his eyes speak, his walk is hunched: a defeatist stature, a human crumbling. He accepts it and ends up kissing the very earth he trampled on.
Sharad too, doesn’t want to end up like his father, whose passion for the art exceeded his talent. His avoidance of his mum isn’t as much a result of artistic arrogance or rigour as it is to avoid detection, for no one would know of the similarities between the two men better than the one woman who has lived with both. Most sons don’t want to end up like their fathers but are more like them than they would admit to others and to themselves.
Now in his 30s, Sharad’s journey seems to take a turn in a direction only hinted at in the first half. The reverential anecdotes about legends turn into farcical demagoguery. The passion now feels aimless, superficial. The stationary frames and wide shots lose the grandeur they were designed to harbour. He wavers between a deep personal quest for meaning and an inertia, a sort of obscurity that can only come from the desire to be something great.
Towards the end, nothing is left, but helpless obstinacy. The air screams of his ruination. He gives up the pretence. He can’t be a middling player either. Thankfully, a life of carrying the burden of someone else’s dream isn’t a wasteful life after all. Most people spend their entire lives without ever testing their potential, living in wistful delusions instead. His identity is forged through trial and error, and thus has the essence of destiny in it. Ultimately, he too picks up an axe and starts digging but only to bury the illusion of clever artistry. After all, an offspring is nothing but an unwilling disciple.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.