Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Producers: Vivek Gomber, Alfonso Cuarón (executive)
Writer: Chaitanya Tamhane
Edited by: Chaitanya Tamhane
Cinematography: Michal Sobocinski
Starring: Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave
Streaming on: Netflix
In his 1901 semi-autobiographical novella Tonio Kröger, Thomas Mann tells the story of a famous but tormented writer. One of my favourite lines is, "He is mistaken who believes he may pluck a single leaf from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with his life." Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple is the cinematic rendition of this.
The Disciple is a meditative character study of a Hindustani classical vocalist named Sharad Nerulkar. We first meet Sharad in 2006, when he is 24 years old, filled with devotion to the tradition and a determination to achieve a spiritual purity in his art. Sharad refuses to get a job and immerses himself in this arduous journey of perfecting his talent. Late at night, he drives through the near-empty streets of Mumbai, listening to the recorded lectures of Maai – an iconic singer who rejected patrons, audiences, fame. We don't see Maai but we hear her with the same reverence that Sharad does – the role has been voiced by acclaimed Marathi director Sumitra Bhave who passed away this month – because Maai's pursuit seems mythical. In her lectures, she says that she sang for her guru and god. And that the music demands an unblemished mind and the minimalist life of an ascetic. Hindustani classical, Maai warns, is an eternal quest and will take many lifetimes to master. Sharad's own guru, who was Maai's disciple, tells Sharad that till they were 40, they never thought of anything but practice.
But time frays Sharad's idealism. Asceticism in the hustling and bustling city of Mumbai is a difficult practice. Sharad continues to serve his guru, caring for him as he grows older, massaging his legs, taking him to the doctor, even repaying his loans. But his tapasya contrasts sharply with his lukewarm career in a cultural marketplace where people are more interested in easy listening and vocal acrobatics. For all his brilliance, his guru remains unsung. Sharad is also wracked by self-doubt and haunted by thoughts of mediocrity and failure – his father, who initiated him into music, couldn't succeed because his talent was smaller than his passion. Slowly we see a hollowed-out anxiety setting into Sharad's eyes. You can almost hear him thinking – is this all there is?
The Disciple might be set in the esoteric world of Indian classical music but its concerns are universal – Sharad's struggle to negotiate between the lofty demands of the tradition and the tough reality of survival in a city like Mumbai is the struggle of artists everywhere. He performs in non-descript halls and watches stoically as a young girl on a television talent show rises to fame. Every step of her ascent takes her further from her original self – in the last visual of her, she's on a gaudy set, painted with make-up, singing a forgettable filmy song. But she's made a mark. Meanwhile Sharad continues to offer his hard-earned artistry to a handful of listeners. His uncompromising pursuit of perfection becomes harder to justify or sustain.
The Disciple is a film about artistic rigour told with great formal rigour. Chaitanya constructs Sharad's narrative with long takes and wide establishing shots. The camera stays still. The pacing is purposefully slow. This isn't a film about big plot twists or overblown emotion. The story unfolds in a low-key, naturalistic manner. Like Sharad, Chaitanya is pursuing a certain purity of vision. Which requires commitment from the viewer.
You don't need to know Hindustani classical music to appreciate The Disciple – I don't. But you do need to submit to Chaitanya's challenging poetry – the immersive sound design, the studied frames and Aditya Modak's melancholic performance. Aditya, a musician who makes his acting debut as Sharad, transforms externally and internally, as we watch. It's astounding.
The Disciple comes to us after winning accolades around the world – it was the first film from India to be selected in the main competition of a European film festival in almost 20 years. It debuted at the prestigious Venice Film Festival where it bagged the Best Screenplay award and the FIPRESCI award, given by international film critics. It then played at a slew of film festivals including Toronto, New York and Zurich.
This is a film with muted but mysterious gifts. You can watch it on Netflix.