Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Writer: Chaitanya Tamhane
Edited by: Chaitanya Tamhane
Cinematography: Michal Sobocinski
Starring: Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave
Music: Aneesh Pradhan
Streaming on: Netflix
The mystical land is hidden away in the mountains. Its sky-high walls shelter an ancient temple of immortal teachers. These divine men and women hold spiritual secrets and precious knowledge – the key to unlock the intimidating, cast-iron doors of Musical Combat. They are the Chosen Ones: the Grand Master Oogways and Master Shifus of a fading universe. But nobody has seen them in decades. Legend goes that their soul is still doing the work of their bodies, blessing only the brave few who dare to do the perilous trek across endless valleys and forests and shark-infested rivers up into their cloudy kingdom. There are no shortcuts.
The Disciple opens with this look of fantastical devotion on a young man's face. Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) is on stage as a Hindustani classical musician, but plays in palpable awe of the vocalist, his beloved guruji. The performance is at a modest Mumbai auditorium in 2006, but Sharad may as well be on the trek back in time through those magical forests. The camera closes in from a wide establishing shot, as though the earthly setting – the ceiling fans, the curious onlookers, the tacky banners, the distracted air – is slowly ceasing to exist for Sharad. He is both participant and audience, unable to hide his rapturous reverence for the immortal teacher's craft.
Soon we see Sharad in a shop, deliberating on a crisp kurta and shawl to wear for an upcoming contest. "Once you're on stage, everything is part of the performance," he says, quoting his late father. Soon we see Sharad mourning the crass commercialism of a singer he once admired ("this concert racket has corrupted him") – he mocks the weekend enthusiasts that can't tell one raga from another. Soon we see Sharad preparing to practise at night, carefully organising the space of a sparse living room. When his grandmother interrupts his diligence, he gets irritated. But instead of restarting his riyaz, he snatches the keys to his motorbike. On these nocturnal rides through a city that never sleeps, Sharad is plugged in to rare tape recordings of lectures by a fabled master. He swears by her words. In his head, this is what he is: a lone crusader galloping through the dark in slow motion. His struggle is dignified by the heritage of history. And soon we also sense that Sharad, the sincere striver, suffers from a familiar illness: he is a dreamer in the guise of a doer. A theorist wearing the cloak of a thinker. His heart is bigger than his talent – he is unable to tell the romance of legacy from the love of art. He is unable to tell the scholarly subservience of studenthood from the intuitive control of sainthood. As a result, Sharad's perseverance is a symptom of his purism – he treats greatness like a disease that can be cured through medicinal accuracy. He is all method and no madness.
In that sense, The Disciple is a deeply personal and unflinching portrait of creative idealism. It's almost as though the film itself – with its dry and quasi-bureaucratic style – is at constant odds with its protagonist's lofty idea of learning. The distant filming of the music, bereft of editing flourishes and sensory motion, is designed to dispel the image and reiterate the picture. It refuses to succumb to the striking individualism of the tortured artist. By eschewing the visual gimmickry of passion, The Disciple is defined by the curiosity of a soul-searching expedition. Its memoir-like structure straddles the border between catharsis and closure. Director Chaitanya Tamhane's own career arc – from teenage writer of Balaji soaps to perhaps India's most acclaimed independent filmmaker – has been well documented over the years. One might imagine Tamhane himself was the Sharad of this tale before his alliance with producer-actor-enabler Vivek Gomber.
Most cinephiles go through the proverbial rite of passage – a phase of being torn between idolising and creating, worshipping and wanting, deriving and driving. The thirst for knowledge often consumes the hunger to express. Tamhane presumably crossed over with the award-winning Court, but The Disciple is a disarming confession of the fact that he, unlike many of his predecessors, may have profited from a transitory landscape. Resilience and talent amount to little without the agency of time. One might argue that staying the course without caving to the vagaries of commerce is credible enough – and it is. But there's also no denying that the 34-year-old director's iconic rise is rooted in the digital boom, the relative democratisation of Indian filmmaking in terms of both access and visibility.
A nod to this emerges in the second half of The Disciple, a full decade after we first see Sharad. By now, the hopeful angst has morphed into silent resignation. A running backdrop to Sharad's midlife slump features a sappy talent-hunt TV show. Sharad watches with dead-eyed envy as a young girl – a 'modern' classical vocalist – is packaged in an underdog narrative, before singing her way to cosmetic fame. By the end the girl is performing a popular AR Rahman ballad, while the nation swoons at her metamorphosis from hidden gem to sparkling swan. She is probably the face of Indian classical music to millions of uninitiated listeners, because she sounds different from the others in the limelight: her competence is irrelevant, her novelty is not. The nation's reaction to her isn't too different from the reception to last year's web series Bandish Bandits, a glossy exoticisation of the classical oeuvre powered by a fusion with mainstream sensibilities. Which is to say, Sharad's gaze is likely Tamhane's – except The Disciple is also introspective enough to indict his own misplaced morality, his own inability to adapt with the times. After all, the greed of capitalism does not absolve the naivety of socialism.
The period of the film (2006 to 2016) is cleverly placed at the intersection of two eras. The advent of technology haunts the narrative. A younger Sharad nurses a part-time job of converting old VHS tapes into Box DVD sets. The 2016 portion opens with him getting professionally photographed for his website. At one point, the 36-year-old Sharad finds himself hurtling down a social media wormhole, his resentment building with every subsequent click. From stalking the profile of a female 'competitor', he ends up scrolling through the comments on his own YouTube videos. He types a bitter response to one before resisting – a conflict that most of us in the new-media system have confronted in this age of unfiltered scrutiny. (If I had a penny for every instance I've semi-responded to an unsavoury comment on a review, I'd be a reality TV star.) It's also an oddly tragic moment, a snapshot of a self-appointed custodian stewing in the loneliness of his fate. He is convinced – as we all tend to be – that it's not him but the world around him that lacks perspective and patience.
Sharad's is a story of universal resonance, but the medium chosen – Indian classical music – is not incidental. There's arguably no other artform today whose traditionalism is so visible and visibly threatened by newness. The guru-shishya bond is inherent to the culture – the sacrosanctity of which elevates the conflict between imitation and originality, nostalgia and evolution. The art itself is remote and esoteric, exclusive in difficulty and sound, which in turn frames Sharad's journey as a mythical one for the viewer. He may as well be trekking to a holy temple in the clouds. It's not a typical musical ecosystem, but the problems faced by its practitioners – of relevance, survival, self-loathing, sustainability – are scarily typical. This tonal paradox, where a sobering dot underscores an errant question mark, emphasizes the intellectual duality of The Disciple.
It's no surprise that Sharad's mode of transport changes over time. From a meandering bike rider, he becomes an average train commuter. At one level, it depicts the "demotion" from artist to commoner. The motorcycle knew no direction, sampling shady lanes and late-night freeways to nowhere; the train simply ferries the body from one station to another. But at another level, Mumbai's local train is a symbol of not just the spirited but also the settler. Constructed from the energy of the office-going and the fatigue of the home-going, the space bleeds a sense of conformity. The compartment is the one place where the mind dares to meander into lost lanes and late-night freeways, and where wrecked goals are reminisced about between concrete destinations. When penniless singers climb in to entertain a packed train, commuters often avoid eye-contact with the performers, lest they be reminded of the voices they once abandoned.
Singer Aditya Modak's rendition of Sharad Nerulkar – an uncanny composition of the boy on the bike and the man on the train – is deserving of two distinct films. Physical transformation aside, the change in gait is remarkable. One can almost sense the emotional decay of the ten (unseen) years. Modak's control of the passive means that the rose-tinted glasses don't disappear so much as dissolve. Every time he cares for his ailing master, the mystical land loses a little more sheen, and the pedestal cracks under the weight of humanised effigies. It's only fitting then that a chat with a veteran critic at a bar becomes the highlight of the film. A casual exchange turns tense, but more importantly it dismantles the fragile bridge connecting the insanity of art to the lunacy of religion; the fanatical is only an alphabetical subset of the fantastical. The scene reveals a disciple who is nothing if not a diehard student. Most of all, it exposes the difference between ambition and aspiration – one's the hallmark of an artist, the other is the curse of a follower.