Review: The Disciple

A young man on a bike, a serene night, an empty Mumbai road. A voice from the earphones fills his mind, hypnotises his being. The words trickle down slowly and carefully, as if this divine incantation has transcended time. The bike glides in slow motion, respecting the meditative voice. “Saints and ascetics have attained this music after thousands of years of rigorous spiritual pursuit,” she begins. “It cannot be learnt so easily. There’s a reason Indian classical music is considered an Eternal Quest. And to embark on that quest, you’ll have to surrender and sacrifice. If you want to earn money, raise a family, then perform love songs or film songs. [But] if you want to walk this path, learn to be lonely and hungry.”

The listener is Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), a young classical singer, the speaker Sindhubai Jadhav — or Maai (Sumitra Bhave) — his guru’s guru. She’s long dead, but Sharad often turns to her recorded lectures for inspiration and solace. Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature, The Disciple, now streaming on Netflix, enters the world of classical music and tells a singular Indian story of the politics of devotion — and the opaqueness of authority.  

The drama pivots on the guru-shishya parampara — the mentor-mentee tradition — a long-standing feature of the Indian classical music. Their ubiquitous presence marks and defines this film. Sharad’s guru, Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid), trains and performs with him. He follows his teacher, cares for him as a father: massaging his legs, calling the doctor, paying for the treatment. Vinayak remembers his mentor, acknowledging that eternal debt, even in his old age. “We could not utter a single word in front of Maai,” he tells Sharad. “We just kept our heads down and sang.” Maai says, “I sing only for my Guru and my God.” Sharad’s first music teacher was his father, a man whose sincerity outsized his talent.

The linguistic root of gharana (ghar, or home) — a community of musicians bound by region, apprenticeship, or musical style — and the frequent reference to the Almighty, and the divine-filial reverence for mentors indicate the intersections of three key figures in The Disciple: parents, gurus, and gods. Sometimes they coalesce into one. These figures of authority induce unambiguous reverence and unwavering allegiance. The disciple then faces a paradoxical conundrum: How can he find his voice by losing his own?

Tamhane is perceptive about the nature of such relationships. For Sharad, Vinayak’s approval is paramount. The whole world may have a different opinion, but Vinayak’s word can annul them all as, for Sharad, his mentor is his world. But when even that feels inadequate — due to self-doubt or the persistent worry of finding success — he turns to Maai under an open-sky, wearing earphones, driving a bike. What does She tell him? “If you want the truth of the Raag to spontaneously reveal itself, you’ll have to rid your mind of falsehood, greed, and impure thoughts”; “you don’t just practice music but also endurance and perseverance”; “technique is merely a medium to express your inner life — technique can be taught, Truth cannot.” Maai’s teachings can be distilled in two questions with probable interconnected answers: What is a good artist — who is a good person?

Sharad is virtually an orphan — his father is dead, and he presumably has a strained relationship with his mother — so, for someone like him, Vinayak and Maai are his quasi-parents. A relationship that runs one-way: He doesn’t question Vinayak; he can’t question Maai. The expectation of authority is obedience, resting on a simple presumption: That the mentor is (always) right, that she knows it all, that she is pure. But what if she, like everyone else, is human — jaundiced, parochial, hypocritical? What if the guru is not an overflowing and transparent fount of wisdom but sly, evasive, and insecure? Where does a disciple float his questions if the mentor doesn’t have an answer? Where does a believer go if the gods have sullied the temple?

The Disciple is not overtly political, but it compels us to consider penetrating concerns, melding the political and the personal, hiding in plain sight. Like Maai, many Indian parents have expounded some key tenets of propriety to their children — sanskar (values), tyaag (sacrifice), tapasya (austerity), mehnat (labour), among others — linking personal virtues to professional success. But the very same people in the recent past have supported — and cheered — draconian political decisions, revealing their bigoted callous sides. Tamhane’s drama, then, prompts a crucial question: How do you process betrayal when it comes from parental figures? Who were these people all along — their old version, the hardworking breadwinners, or the new, holding a glass of single malt and rubbishing Article 370, championing the CAA-NRC and the Ram Mandir? Perhaps both, as ‘people contain multitudes’, but how should their progenies reconcile the contradictions? Because every other form of duplicity can be reasoned, even forgotten and forgiven, but not from people who are — or were — a part of you. This deceit burns hard because it reveals less about the mentor, more about the disciple.

This is such a light wondrous film that it invites multiple interpretations. Receding from imposing meanings — and leaving enough gaps for the audiences to fill — The Disciple allows us to find our own stories. Since it is centered on a close-knit subculture, its echoes find recognisable parallels in other silos. It is also a distinctly Indian drama, because it understands the culture of reverence — and our innate fixation on creating hierarchies, folklores, and demigods — in a country marked by limited opportunity and limitless mediocrity. The Disciple elicits an ever-pertinent question: Can we only convey admiration through (borderline fanatic) devotion?

Tamhane’s minimalist approach could have contradicted the maximalism of Indian classical music, but this contrasting superimposition helps him find a distinct voice. It is a calm assured method that mutes the noise and focuses on the heart of the story. There are no excessive camera movements, no snazzy cuts, no contrived lunges. His philosophy is deceptively simple: one shot, one story. The static frames are immaculately composed, comprising strategically placed characters that capture our instinctual visual interest. Many scenes deploy wide shots and deep focus, often filmed in natural light. It does two key things: a) makes us part of the audience absorbing the musical performances, b) peels away the layers of intimidation marking the mythical world of the performing arts — and shows how ordinary, how dispiriting and disillusioning, it can be. It also heightens realism, as even solemn performances are pricked via daily mundaneness: someone serves water to the singer, someone enters the auditorium, someone finds a seat.

Unlike many directors, Tamhane doesn’t film his conversations via the conventional ‘shot-reverse shot’ method. His camera is often placed at a perpendicular position with respect to the characters, filming them in profile shots. This technique, too, aids the story as we can see only one side of a character’s face — in a world that prizes performance, where people hide their true selves and frailties, this choice speaks reams. It also makes us feel like we’re watching a play — a live performance, complementing the film’s story and themes — where the director can’t flip perspectives. So, it makes absolute sense that The Disciple derives key dramatic potency from a 2008 play, Grey Elephants in Denmark, directed by Tamhane himself. And when he changes that style, such as in the crucial conversation between an old music critic and Sharad — placing the camera close to the speaker, slowly zooming in on the listener from an oblique angle — that choice is deliberate. That slow camera movement also recurs in scenes where Sharad is performing on stage, isolating him from the rest of the world, imprisoning him with himself.

Even the editing (by Tamhane) imbues the film with an appropriate musical rhythm. Many scenes, especially those involving Maai, transition through a J cut — an editing style where the sound from the next scene overlaps with the visual of a preceding scene — reinforcing her omnipresent divine status: someone who ‘calls’ Sharad. Some scenes of hers end with an L cut (the opposite of a J cut) underlining a key facet of their relationship: Maai is present even when she’s not.

Comprising non-professional actors, The Disciple features excellent performances — especially by Modak, who plays two versions of himself, the 24-year-old (in 2006), and the other, 12 years older. If the younger Sharad is sincere and naïve, then his mature self is beaten and jaded. This transition is not conveyed through flowing dialogues or pressing mannerisms but Modak’s cold impassive eyes watching the world elude him in disorganised fragments. Disconnecting from the world — snapping the cords with purported sanity — marks The Disciple’s second half. His old friends and collaborators are performing in the US, while Sharad is stuck in Kalyan. Sometimes, he’s compelled to write an angry retort to a YouTube commenter dissing his performance. Some of his other counterparts have been co-opted by the myth-making industry of reality shows — called The Fame India — autotuning their stories of ‘struggle’.

But Sharad is different — Sharad was different. He listened to his masters. He respected the medium. He offered sacrifices. But was it enough — was he even good enough to begin with? Could he “separate fact from fiction”, distinguish the piece from the puzzle? Like a hapless orphan, this disciple found a deluded parent and lost himself.

Originally written for, and published at, The Wire.        

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