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'The Disciple' review: Hitting the high notes

Chaitanya Tamhane's new film, set in the world of classical music, won the Best Screenplay award at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival

Chaitanya Tamhane's 'The Disciple' won Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival
Chaitanya Tamhane's 'The Disciple' won Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival

“Chaitanya (Tamhane) is an amazing filmmaker. He’s a better filmmaker than me in many ways," Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron told Mint Lounge back in 2018, fresh off having mentored the emerging filmmaker for several weeks as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

By contrast, the relationship between mentor and protégé in Tamhane’s sophomore feature The Disciple, which Cuaron executive produced, is not one of such open admiration. Exploring the esoteric world of Indian classical music, the film centres around Sharad, a young Mumbai-based musician with lofty aspirations but perhaps not enough talent to fulfil them, despite being trained by a renowned vocalist whom he calls Guruji.

Played with a glum stoicism by Aditya Modak (a real-life classically trained singer), Sharad is devoted to mastering khayal, a genre of Hindustani classical music rooted in improvisation. Inducted into the world of classical music as a young child by his father, himself a classical singer who never achieved great success, it's hard to tell whether Sharad is on this path because something within him calls him to do so or because he grew up immersed in the tradition.

That matters, because as the film makes clear, mastering the raga is a noble pursuit that requires utter and complete devotion. Don’t dream of proficiency till you’re at least 40, Sharad’s wizened Guru (played by another real-life musician, Dr Arun Dravid of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana) informs the 24-year-old singer after yet another mediocre performance that leaves him dispirited and morose in the backseat of a taxi.

On an intellectual level, Sharad seems to understand that the kind of virtuosity he aspires to is a lifelong journey. When he takes long, solitary bike rides through the empty streets of Mumbai in the dead of night, he listens to audio tapes of lectures delivered in the 1970s by Maai, a musical legend whom he reveres. Over and over, she talks of the sacred nature of Indian classical music and the level of spirituality and asceticism required to master it. It's an eternal quest, she says; one of immense sacrifice.

But Sharad seems more eager to reach the destination than revel in the journey. He’s despondent when he loses local singing competitions, watches reality singing competitions on television with a mix of envy and disdain, and bristles when his Guruji corrects him, mid-performance, in front of a room full of strangers. To an untrained ear (mine, and likely many audience-goers'), it's hard to tell whether Sharad is innately talented or not but it is possible to discern that he’s lacking a certain something—especially when he performs with a group whose prowess surpasses his own.

While Tamhane's previous film, Court, served as an indictment of the Indian judicial system, The Disciple narrows its scope, painting a portrait of one individual’s commitment to a historic tradition. A quiet character study, the film is already making waves on the festival circuit. Earlier this month, it became the first Indian film to be screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival since Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001. It went on to win the FIPRESCI Award, presented by The International Federation of Film Critics, and the award for Best Screenplay. It is now screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

But films that play well at festivals don’t always resonate with audiences in quite the same way. The unhurried pace of The Disciple, not to mention the abstruse world it captures, may preclude it from widespread success but that doesn’t seem to ever have been Tamhane’s objective. The idea to make a film about Indian classical music, he says in an interview with Rolex, “came out of nowhere" and he spent several years researching the passion project.

“One of the aspects that seduced me is that there is this element of secrecy, of myth-making, of stories attached to this world and with very eccentric characters. That was my initial entry point into this music. And also this seductive idea of having to dedicate your entire life to an art form that is so difficult to master."

For Sharad, that dedication doesn’t seem to be paying off. There’s no doubt that he has sacrificed a great deal in his quest for perfection. He doesn't have many friends; he works part-time at a recording studio, which his mother repeatedly asks him to trade in for a “real job", and has no interest in marriage. (Whether his commitment to this sort of lifestyle stems from discipline or social awkwardness is hard to tell.)

To underscore the striving musician's years-long journey, about halfway through the film Tamhane flashes forward 15 years. Sharad is still singing (and training) and continues to hold Maai and his Guruji in high regard, despite a chance encounter with a music journalist who casts aspersions on both their personalities and their abilities. But some things have changed—he’s now teaching music at a local school and has promised his mother that he will marry the following year. But he is no closer to the musical transcendence he dreams of. So what's an artist to do? When does he give up? Should he give up?

The film explores these existential questions and more, offering a peek at a lonesome path that one must tread alone, wrapped up in a singular pursuit, to achieve the sort of enlightenment the medium demands. Credit goes to Tamhane for not dealing with the subject in too heavy-handed a manner; there are moments of levity and though we may not be able to relate to Sharad’s struggle, we can recognize bits of ourselves in the flashes of envy, frustration and self-doubt that colour his journey.

Pahull Bains is the Culture & Lifestyle Editor at FASHION Magazine in Toronto, and a Contributing Editor at Vogue India.

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