The Disciple movie review: Chaitanya Tamhane’s second film is a moving ode to lives spent in pursuit of art
The Disciple is a thoroughly Indian film, rooted in the space and cinematic time that director Chaitanya Tamhane creates.
The final scene of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple – a static shot that runs uncut for about two and a half minutes – is almost a tour de force in the sheer intricacy and potency of cinema as a medium. I won’t talk about what happens in the scene, but if I were to verbally describe the life of the film’s protagonist Sharad Nerulkar in a few lines, and then simply show you that last shot of the film, the shot would still make all the sense in the world; and it would most certainly have some kind of emotional impact on you as well.
Of course, to truly feel the full weight of that final image of The Disciple, you need to experience everything that comes before it. At its barest, the film is a look at the life of an aspiring classical singer in Mumbai, one who spends nearly every moment of his youth consumed by the vagaries of his chosen vocation.
Indian classical music, with all its glorious traditions and esoterica, seems like a ruthless pursuit for someone who yearns for success, an unbelievably tough journey for someone who wants to ‘make it’. Tamhane’s film ultimately ends up taking a deep, hard look at all the different shapes and sizes of what that ‘making it’ might look like, and how so much of it depends on the individual whose perspective we’re seeing it through.
In his twenties, Sharad is filled with hope and ambition. He is earnest; he puts in the hard yards; he is devoted to, almost worships, his guru. You can tell that he has the talent, despite the fact that he tends to bomb, particularly before an audience. His ‘guruji’ points out the flaws in his singing or performances unperturbed, reminding Sharad every now and then that his voyage into the sea of classical music is likely to be a long and arduous one, much like the master’s own. Sharad seems to acknowledge and intellectually understand this. But emotionally internalising it? That’s another matter altogether.
We get to see Sharad in three distinct phases of his life. A few flashbacks show us a little of his childhood, focusing on little Sharad’s memories of his father – a trained classical singer himself, attempting to infuse his son with the same ardent love for the art that he has. The main focus of the film though, are Sharad’s youth (his mid-twenties); and then his late thirties (and a little of his forties), by when the world and its ways have weathered him. Even though the film is essentially a collection of scenes from these phases of his life, you get a sense of the toll taken on him not just by what we see in the film, but also by all those decades that you don’t get to see. As we witness his life unfold through these disparate scenes, the film is resolute in not elevating the drama for the most, even though a lot of what we see is inherently dramatic.
Sharad’s relationship with his master; his deification of his master’s master – the near-mythical Maai (voiced with gravitas by the late Sumitra Bhave), who he only knows through audio recordings of her lectures that he listens to on loop; his successes and failures, both in his chosen path as well as his life in general; all of it is imbued with a deep sense of pathos, but it plays out as matter-of-fact as life itself.
If Chaitanya Tamhane impressed with his debut film Court, with The Disciple he displays a vastly improved command over the medium. Every frame seems carefully crafted – Tamhane uses far fewer shots in his films than most directors usually do, so they all have to be worth their presence. While Tamhane’s penchant for wide static frames continues, the camera is noticeably more active than it was with his debut film. Its movements are precise and gentle, carefully calibrated to what the first frame and last frame are meant to convey.
While a lot of the differences in visual craft between Court and The Disciple stem from the fact that the latter is a more personal tale about a defined protagonist, I couldn’t help but wonder if and how much of the story as well as the nature of the camera movement was influenced by Alfonso Cuarón and the time Tamhane spent being mentored by the Mexican master on the sets of Roma. But make no mistake, The Disciple is a thoroughly Indian film, rooted in the space and cinematic time that Tamhane creates.
Each scene – some showcasing almost banal interactions, others holding a lot more significance in Sharad’s life journey – seems to have been chiselled away at and perfected at every stage of bringing the film to life. This extends to the production design, the look of each space and location, as well as to the performances by every key actor in the cast – Aditya Modak as Sharad, Arun Dravid as his guru Vinayak Pradhan, Kiran Yadnyopavit as Sharad’s father, Sumitra Bhave as the voice of Maai and all the other bit characters. Modak, in particular, is the absolute fulcrum of the film, and his physical transformation between the vastly different phases of Sharad’s life is remarkable.
The drama of a struggling musician isn’t a particularly new one. The Coen Brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, a darkly comic yet poignant tale of a struggling singer in New York City, is a personal favourite. Zoya Akhtar gave her own spin to the Mumbai rapper story with Gully Boy in 2019. (Indeed, Gully Boy’s Murad and The Disciple’s Sharad are seen driving/biking along the same flyover at night, in their respective films.) The 2020 Amazon Prime show Bandish Bandits is one way a fluffy masala version of The Disciple could turn out. Yet, Tamhane’s film seems like its own being, like nothing else in this travails-of-the-artist space that comes to mind.
It is a simple story layered with complexity specifically by the medium through which it is told – cinema. Its themes of single-minded devotion to a creative pursuit and the existential dilemmas that accompany it can be extrapolated to any art form; or indeed, to anything that demands extreme rigour and discipline. There are questions it delves into, about the mind of the purist and about the pretentiousness of artistic quests, that could possibly be linked at a metaphysical level to the director’s own approach to his art and craft.
Chaitanya Tamhane sculpts and tunes the life of his protagonist as well as all these debates, large and small, into a stoic movie that leaves you to truly grapple with its simmering emotional undercurrents only with that final shot mentioned at the outset. The Disciple is a worthy sophomore film that ups the expectations for where the filmmaker goes from there.
The Disciple releases 30 April, on Netflix.
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