Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is an elitist take on the 'market' for classical music

The Disciple seems to take its elitist viewpoint from a ‘Brahminical’ position that does not envisage the necessity of a ‘public’ for any kind of artistic practice.

MK Raghavendra October 22, 2020 12:21:18 IST
Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is an elitist take on the 'market' for classical music

Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple has attracted notice internationally by winning the Fipresci Prize at Venice, one of the big three film festivals in Europe. His first feature film Court (2014) must rank as one of the two or three best Indian films made after 2000, and one waited eagerly for his next directorial venture. In Court he used a minimalist approach to deal with the issue of justice, placing a Dalit activist at the center, someone absurdly accused of persuading a municipal worker to ‘kill himself’ when the cause of death was the worker choking on the poisonous gasses generated by the sewage in a drain. It was the deadpan irony in the film that made it so powerful, creating the sense that the truth was there for everyone to see, without the director having to persuade us to his viewpoint. A shocking element was the revelation that a worker who enters a drain can tell if it is safe only by the cockroaches — since their absence would imply poisonous gases and potential death for him. My observation here, which becomes relevant in the context of Tamhane’s new film The Disciple, is that the minimalist approach worked in Court because there was already a universal humanist code that dictated how we should respond to what the film showed us – laying down that all human life is valuable, that the lives of the poor should not be made cheap, and that it was partly the duty of the law to honour it. The director did not need not attempt to arouse our emotions since they were already guaranteed by the theme.

From such a socially explosive theme Tamhane has moved to the lives of practitioners of classical Hindustani music, an area where no response is guaranteed since it is so esoteric, but he still uses the same unemotional and ‘minimalist’ approach to tell his story. In the film Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) is a young musician and a disciple of a senior vocalist whom he calls Guruji (Arun Dravid) and the film begins with a concert of the latter, with Nerulkar accompanying him on the tambura. Nerulkar has promise but at the very first important competition, he does not win the expected award. Tamhane’s camera style gives nothing away, neither Nerulkar’s hopes nor his disappointment, since we have seen his singing being appreciated by the judges, and we do not know what to make of it. When he does not, in the course of the film, amount to much, we are not convinced that his story even merits telling. Minimalism as practiced by giants in world cinema (like Bresson or Ozu) is not synonymous with showing ‘little’ but with finding alternate modes that communicate sharply without depending on cliché, and the logic is that cliché, being too tired to be expressive, needs to be replaced. As an instance, Bresson uses close-ups of hands rather than faces to suggest emotional states, since the latter is cliched and overused.

There are various things in The Disciple that are evidently important but that we do not get to find out. In the first place Nerulkar is deliberately indifferent to his family and is apparently estranged from his mother, but is his refusal to take a telephone call enough to convey that? What Tamhane is providing is only information – Nerulkar’s dedication to music through his practicing alone on a terrace shown over several sequences, his Guruji’s exploitation of his devotion through Nerulkar doing all kinds of things for him, the absent Maii – Guruji’s dead teacher whose music we never hear but whose dense speeches (‘technique is not truth and the singer must seek the truth’) constantly echo in Nerulkar’s mind. Maii’s speeches are not illuminating and it is only his personal connect that seems important. Later, Nerulkar tries to donate the tapes to a library but the library is not enthusiastic.

My argument here is that every relationship – like the ‘exploitative’ one where he submits to with Guruji – needs to be brought alive through a pointed observational detail, perhaps a bit of callousness or cruelty. Merely showing Nerulkar massaging the old man’s legs or making tea for him is not enough. When Guruji chides him for not measuring up, it could well be honest judgement on Guruji’s part and not personal cruelty – and that should only be welcome to any singer hoping to succeed as an artiste in a tradition. The guru-shishya relationship as related by Tamhane has no significance of its own but is like a Rorschach inkblot, meaning different things to different people.

The problem is perhaps that Tamhane takes many audience responses he would like as a given, which is unreasonable. For instance, there is a talent contest in which a garishly dressed/painted girl croons successfully that forms a constant thread in the narrative, although nothing is made of it. Is Tamhane castigating popular music for the ‘easy success’ that some people achieve and contrasting it with the difficulties experienced by the classical singer who works at something so much more valuable? Such a viewpoint (as in Shankarabharanam) might be simplistic but it would at least be a firm viewpoint. It is the same with the sense conveyed that Maii and Guruji are exemplary musicians in a world given to commercialisation; if it is really so commercial, why does not Tamhane acknowledge the glamour in the profession? In actual fact, classical music is highly respected and fairly lucrative in today’s India. Even amateur classical singers earn considerably by teaching aspiring students in their spare time.

The classical music heard onscreen in the film is competent but even a connoisseur will hesitate to pronounce judgement. In the first place, the quality of a musical performance is an issue that fetches a divided vote. Tamhane has Maii admitting on tape that you cannot satisfy everyone since every mind is an independent one with all kinds of pressures acting upon it but, elsewhere, he describes a performance by Guruji as having, by universal consensus, been the best one he ever gave. If people are as divided by their personalities in judging a new piece of music, could there be such a consensus?

Making a film about fictional artists is a dicey proposition if the film dwells overly on the value of that kind of art to humankind. The value of an art object is not self-evident and it will need debate among experts to arrive at any kind of common judgement. That is the reason that any film about a fictional artist/musician explores matters other than the artist’s dedication to his vocation or his/her innate capabilities as an artist. It might deal with economic hardships, relationships in the profession or even difficulties in working at vocations but rarely is the work itself judged. Andrej Wajda’s The Conductor (1980) deals with personal rivalries among musicians. Never, to my mind, are we required to admire the music itself unless the film is a fictionalised account of an actual musician whose greatness is accepted – like Mozart in Amadeus (1984).

Tamhane offers us so little by which to respond to in terms of human relationships that we are led, by default, into believing that the film is essentially a eulogy to classical Hindustani music and its dedicated practitioners, also covertly castigating the philistines who subsist on music without true talent or dedication. My own understanding of its logic is that it feeds off the moribund notion of the ‘rasika’. The classical arts in India were not meant for the ‘public’ but were elitist in the sense that they were sustained by the patronage of those with understanding of the art and the wherewithal or power to support it. This is the implication of Guruji or Maii suggesting that a great musical rendering does not need an audience and that singers sing for themselves. I am not decrying the notion that great art cannot reach everyone – since it cannot submit to democratic opinion – but in today’s world, music, however great, needs to acknowledge the public for whom it is meant and the market that supports it.

To conclude on a political note, Tamhane’s The Disciple seems to take its elitist viewpoint from a ‘Brahminical’ position that does not envisage the necessity of a ‘public’ for any kind of artistic practice. The notion of ‘rasika’ is from a milieu in which hierarchy reigns, and his or her response goes beyond mere ‘enjoyment’ – which would be what a folk performance might fetch for its audience. Great art, without doubt, can only be truly appreciated by a few, but by keeping access open to a general public, it helps increase the ranks of those few, and that is why a ‘market’ for classical music cannot be sneered at. Perhaps Chaitanya Tamhane understands that his view of artistic practice as the exclusive domain of a few is untenable because that is where his ‘minimalism’ eventually leads – to a concealment of elitist prejudices.

MK Raghavendra is a well-known film scholar and critic

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