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The best Indian film of 2021

Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple immerses us in the insular world of Indian classical music, and forces us to confront our own prejudices 

A still from ‘The Disciple’

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This is the year Indian audiences started reading. Hindi cinema had a lustreless 2021 — Shoojit Sircar’s deliberate, devastating Sardar Udham was the only true spark — but, propelled by house arrest and a lack of options, audiences looked beyond local films. They expanded their cinematic diets and tucked, ravenously and gratefully, into movies made across the nation. Encouraged by digital availability and language options, India finally got over its fear of subtitles. 2021 belonged to Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen, Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Perambarai, TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim, Manu Warrier’s Kuruthi and Basil Joseph’s Minnal Murali. Radical, fearless, authentic cinema. 

My film of the year was all those things — and quieter.

Also read: 'The Disciple' review: Promising young musician

Bombay slows down when you’re alone at night. The city may infamously refuse to sleep, but it does take the occasional breather. Also, earphones help. We see the protagonist in Chaitanya Tamhane’s extraordinary film The Disciple (on Netflix) ride a motorcycle through deserted crossings in an ungodly hour, the city allowing him to drink in lungfuls of silence as he listens to what he feels matters most. Tamhane captures him in excessively slow-motion — the tyres turning gradually, the world melting away as he cuts through it like a hot butter-knife — to go with the unhurried classical music in his ears. Art, he is told, does not care for an audience.

Yet he does.

The Disciple is a Maharashtrian film exploring the dichotomies of motive: does an artist create for the need to create, or for the recognition that follows from creation? Can there be true creating without recognition? Is there no creativity in those who pander? There are no easy answers as the director immerses us in the peculiar, insular world of Indian classical music, and — specialised as this world is — forces us to confront our own prejudices and our own ignorance. 

Indian classical music demands a level of rigour from the listener as it does the performer, and while it may be simple to nod appreciatively along, it is nearly as hard to recognise purity as it is to attain it. I spent some pre-teen years fiddling with the tablas, but can claim negligible understanding of complexities and classical concepts. In one fiendish scene the boy, the learner, the striving disciple this film follows, is told not to listen in on a concert because it would make his ears bleed. There a tabla-player speaks in Zakirian flourishes and a singer keeps returning the favour, and it is flashy and entertaining, its hollowness only exposed when we see the boy and his master perform.

The master, played by Dr Arun Dravid, is a wonder, singing with enchanting ululations as he raises the ragas, makes them fly, tames them and leads them to fly in other directions. We may not know exactly what it is that makes him special, but beauty transcends awareness, and when we see the acolyte mesmerised, we conveniently borrow some of his awe. Guruji transports even those of us who know not where we want to go. 

The young man provides immediate contrast. Played by prodigious musician Aditya Modak with a Rahul Dravidian earnestness (and haircut), Sharad has a beautiful voice and sounds great at least to the untrained ear — even though the master tells him off, correcting and chiding, explaining the need for precision and brevity, the need to stay away from embellishment. The first time we hear Sharad perform, he appears to leave musical phrases mid-sentence, trailing off to new musical thoughts leaving older ones unfinished. This staccato effect is pleasing, even striking, but after the master guides him an implication arises: those ellipses may be a result of not knowing where to go — or what to say.

The questions Sharad wrestles with — as he listens to sermons by a revered singer he hasn’t heard sing, and reads YouTube comments under videos by his contemporaries — could be posed to creators of all stripe, not only musicians. Tamhane structures the film with a formalism appropriate to the subject, with cinematographer Michal Sobociński forever keeping the subject, this dedicated yet tentative disciple, at the center of most frames. The Bombay shots at night are a highlight, steering the narrative tone of the film, but there is much to admire in the telling details of this film taking place across three distinct decades. 

As Sharad gets older and flabbier, still attempting to divine the way to artistic excellence, Modak gives us a glimpse of the weariness of worship. Tamhane has cast musicians instead of actors and that gives the film its own elemental simplicity, and Aneesh Pradhan’s music compliments the narrative immaculately. Modak has a deceptively arresting screen presence — I couldn’t look away from him — and we can see his struggle in his eyes. He wants, deeply, to understand what is needed, what is Greatness, and his motives, like all ours, are muddied by hurry and want. Wanting to be, alas, does not make.

Also read: Four movies that embody the spirit of Christmas for me

The world of Indian classical music, a world of clans and gharaanas, is one founded on archaic traditions and devotion. The blindness of this reverence, and these systems, may themselves need to be questioned, as we see when a legendary musician — a maestra — is reappraised by modern gatekeepers, now considering not just her music but also her bigotry. 

In one scene, a few people are taking a night train to watch a musician perform. Some are skeptical about what they will get to hear. The man, they say, is a mixed bag, who keeps playing variations on the same raga, and ends up being ‘good’ only about half the time. One of them, however, labels the musician a genius for that very trait, the fact that he strives for something different each time. It is the seemingly repetitive act — like that of the writer carving riffs on the same theme, or the painter drawing mandalas all his life —  that illustrates an artist trying for more. 

What The Disciple applauds is not a great performance. It is the sound of mettle. 

Streaming tip of the week

The unravelling of Princess Diana is made both operatic and intimate in Pablo Larrain’s exceptional Spencer, a character study that is turned into a psychological horror film by the incredible Kristen Stewart in the lead role. The haunting film is now available on BookMyShow Stream.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.

@rajasen

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