Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple was first screened at the Venice Film Festival last year to immense acclaim. Following the trajectory of a young Hindustani classical singer Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), the film takes the viewer through his tenacious struggle, fuelled by his devotion to his guru (Arun Dravid) and the lectures of Maai, a reclusive vocalist and almost mythical figure in the music world. Lounge spoke to Tamhane about the film, which is streaming on Netflix. Edited excerpts:
What led you to explore the subject of Hindustani classical music?
When I was very young, I actually had a problem with this world – its unquestioning submission and all those reverential gestures like touching your ears while talking about your guru. I also believed the music had stopped evolving. It was later that I started getting sucked in, largely through the enthralling anecdotes or quissas about this world—so much so that I was planning to make a documentary on them. In 2015, when I went to NID, Ahmedabad, to do a screening of Court, I had some fascinating conversations with classical musicians there—so fascinating that I abandoned the script I’d been working on for months. So it was the classic cliché of the subject choosing me rather than the other way round.
The germ of the story comes from my play, Grey Elephants In Denmark, about a magician who understands what it is to do good magic but does not have enough talent to do it, and then has to live with that realisation. I thought it would be interesting to explore this theme in a world where the concept of time is different, where at 40 you’re still “young”.
The film appears to be about an average singer who is persevering but doesn’t confront his lack of talent because of lofty concepts and the anachronistic codes of the guru-shishya parampara. Are you subtly critiquing this?
Firstly, I don’t believe in binaries—there are many gradations between ‘average’ and ‘genius’, and in Sharad’s case it could just be his own unrealistic expectations. Also, there’s a belief in many callings, not just classical music, that you have to persist for years to even know if you’re any good. The essence of this theme is equally applicable to, say, a ballerina, a cricketer or an entrepreneur. But the setting I chose allowed me to approach the theme with the nuances and complexities that are specific to this world, like the concept of lifelong tapasya.
This film also came out of a personal nightmare of mine. I dreamt of being a film-maker at 17, and I find myself at a crossroads at 34—a crossroads where cinema houses might be shutting down, and the patronage, commissioning and form of cinema have changed. I haven’t gone through any guru-shishya tradition or had a Maai in my life but the questions I’m encountering are the same as Sharad. Maai is merely the concept of the ideal. And there’s romance in the ideal as well as oppression.
You have an ambiguous scene later where a music critic alleges that Maai and Guruji are not exactly what they’re made out to be. Is this man just a naysayer or someone ripping the veil off the mythology created around certain musicians?
Exactly, it’s ambiguous. And I love that ambiguity. Is this critic speaking the truth or is he a toxic person who dismisses everything because dismissal is so easy? Or is it a mix of both? Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in what he says.
I have had such encounters myself in real life with people from different music camps. I was that naïve little boy whose concepts were shattered by their words and I had to question how much truth there was in them. One has to arrive at these conclusions oneself.
Maai’s tapes are a sort of mystery. Her lectures push Sharad to decades of fruitless pursuit but eventually she ‘speaks’ directly to him and tells him he isn’t good enough. Is she just a voice in his head?
I think it’s pretty clear that at that point, the lines between what’s in the tapes and what’s in his head are blurred for him. As for his lying, there’s an element of secrecy that exists in the Indian classical music world, which is one of the things that fascinated me. I’ve heard outrageous stories—so outrageous they’re even not suitable for fiction. Like there are secret reels lying in Pakistan that would destroy the career of this great musician, there are secret raags or secret manuscripts. Even knowledge has been kept secret and traditionally imparted only when a guru feels his student is ready for it.
Is Maai based on anybody in particular?
There’s been a lot of speculation on that, but no. The character is an amalgamation of what many different musicians represent, maybe not even their own beliefs but what their students and acolytes have made of them. Which is a very Indian thing to do—eulogise human beings, after which everything they say or do is sacrosanct and unquestionable.
The reality show singer Shashwati’s sequences were intriguing. From a simple girl, she gradually becomes more and more sexualised, and eventually becomes an amalgamation of Sharad’s fantasies.
A lot of people interpreted that sequence as a criticism of reality shows; I was not interested in something that banal and obvious. The equation between Sharad and Shashwati is complex: it’s about the envy that someone middle-aged has towards youth; it’s about changing times and access and the choices someone else was able to make. Shaswati is like a projection of Sharad; they’re like mirrors, and she starts becoming one with him almost. That’s what I was trying to do, which is why the sequence eventually also abandons the form of the reality show.
You’ve cast real classical musicians Aditya Modak and Arun Dravid in the film.
The casting was the toughest challenge, which is why it took almost a year. Even after it was done, there was an element of uncertainty on all our parts. For instance, Aditya had to shelve his concerts and work on a huge physical transformation without knowing how it would all turn out. Ditto for me and my producer: the film was riding on the shoulders of a non-professional lead actor in a complex role who was in every single scene. It was a huge risk and a leap of faith for all.
Did you ever consider professional actors and dubbed vocals?
We did, initially. But given the music and the cinematic form, it was impractical. I have long uninterrupted takes, and there are so many nuances in the performance; professional actors would have crumpled under the pressure of having to memorise and gesticulate correctly. We’ve seen so many cringy depictions of Indian classical musicians on screen, I didn’t want to add to that.
Aditya’s role required him to punch below his weight and come down to the level of Sharad. Was that difficult?
Both Aditya and Arun Dravid are very good musicians. And it takes talent and comprehension to play a musician who’s not as good as you are. Aneesh Pradhan, who’s designed the music, had to communicate this, tell them where the character would stumble and how they would have to sing in a way that was not their natural style. It was something only intelligent performers can manage. Apart from that, both belong to different gharanas—Arun Dravid is Jaipur-Atrauli while Aditya is Gwalior—so Aneesh had to work with them to bring in a cohesion.
The exposition of a raag is a long process, tough to depict authentically in a story that has so many stage performances. But you didn’t use devices like, say, dissolves to create the illusion of time.
Frankly, it’s impossible to do justice to a medium in another medium. But I wanted to be faithful to the essence of Indian classical music so we used a variety of approaches. Sometimes we start in the middle of a bandish, sometimes we cheat in a way that it feels like a full performance. In certain sequences, Aneesh went back to the style of the maestros in the ’30s and ’40s, who had to communicate the essence of a raag in just three and a half minutes for an LP.
How has the classical music world reacted to your film?
The overall response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve received congratulatory messages from so many respected musicians whose work I admire. And that’s made me very happy.
Radha Rajadhyaksha is a Mumbai-based writer and editor.