There’s a stunning scene in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar that shows a young man’s anticipation of failure. Apu is walking with his friend at night, telling him the story of his proposed novel, which is actually his own life story. He paints a rosy picture, right until he says, “Perhaps he has greatness in him, but…” “He doesn’t make it,” his friend says. “That’s right,” Apu replies, smiling. “But it isn’t a tragedy.” He goes on to describe a life lived with the knowledge of unreached potential, but still happy and fulfilling.
In Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, Sharad (Aditya Modak) is Apu’s protagonist before the fall, poised between promise and resignation to ordinariness. He’s 24, a Hindustani classical musician in embryo. He’s a student of Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid), an ageing, largely unsung exponent of the Alwar gharana. He lives with his grandmother in what is, by Mumbai standards, a spacious apartment. In the Indian tradition of guru and shishya, he not only learns from Pradhan but also waits on him, driving him to performances, massaging his aching back and legs.
If you’d seen Tamhane’s first film, Court, and were shown the static opening frame of The Disciple, you might be able to guess who the director is: a medium-long shot a stage show, ceiling fans whirring, the camera at an objective distance from the subject. We see panditji perform, Sharad sitting behind him with the other students and musicians, playing the tanpura. The next scene is Sharad rehearsing the same tune at home with his guru, and we can immediately sense the difference. When the old man sings, it sounds like a gathering storm. Sharad’s efforts are a drizzle. He seems technically sound but doesn’t have the years in his voice.
Is that all he lacks? This is the question that hangs over The Disciple, as we watch Sharad fail to take wing. At a local talent show, away from his teacher, he gives a more uninhibited performances, but fails to make the top three. He’s admonished during a public performance by his guru. Every now and then, he takes off on his bike, interludes shot in eerie slo-mo on curiously uncrowded Mumbai streets. Yet it’s unclear if even this clears his head, given how Tamhane overlays them with the voice of the pandit’s own guru, Maai, who’s brutally honest about the chances of success in the classical world. Sharad has taken on the task of digitizing her lectures, and her frank strictures seem to haunt him.
Working with cinematographer Michał Sobociński, Tamhane has added to his visual repertoire since Court (which itself was strikingly shot). There’s that distinctive precise framing—often static and at a remove, allowing the viewer to take in both subject and surroundings—but also scenes in which the camera is unchained. One of Sharad’s performances is filmed in an unbroken 180-degree arc, a movement as elegant as it is predatory. And when he’s practicing on the roof, the movement of the camera is barely perceptible, as if in congruence with the single, extended notes he’s holding.
“Once an idea has been fully expressed, don’t stretch it further,” Sharad’s guru tells him. The Disciple seems to follow this dictum. Scenes get the time they deserve, whether it’s Sharad masturbating at night in the harsh light of a desktop screen (another kind of frustration) or the extended scene at the open-air restaurant, which rapidly disassembles the film’s gospel truths. The film jumps backwards and forwards in time—though the word ‘jump’ is misleading. The transitions from Sharad as a child to him as a hopeful 24-year-old or a 36-year-old with few illusions are seamless. This too is in keeping with the film’s subject: if Sharad is to devote his life entirely to classical music, it doesn’t really matter at which stage we, the audience, come in.
In one of The Disciple's flashbacks, young Sharad is being coached by his father at home. Their session is interrupted by a friend calling Sharad out to play. I learnt classical music for several years when I was young. I had nothing like the abilities of Sharad, and none of his ambition. Still, this scene brought back memories of friends at the door, asking my mother if I was free for a game of cricket. My choice was always cricket over music. Sharad in the scene chooses play too, but his life becomes music. Yet music doesn’t fully embrace him back. He has greatness in him, but…
The Disciple is on Netflix.