Produced Alfonso Cuarón — the director of films like Roma (2018) , Gravity (2013), and Children Of Men (2006) — Chaitanya Tamhane’s latest film, The Disciple, has been screened and won awards in esteemed film festivals of Venice and Toronto becoming the latest Indian film to do so after three decades.
The Disciple follows Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), an Indian classical Khayal vocalist in his continued undying attempts to master his art.
The film primarily follows him in his early twenties. When other men his age are getting married, studying or working, he devotes all his time practicing under the guidance of his teacher, Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Dr. Arjun Dravid). Despite long hours of practice and abstinence from all the joys in the world, he always falls short.
The film also explores his childhood when he was first exposed to classical music and the myths and legends surrounding the elusive reclusive indian classical singer, Maai, through his father. Since Nerulkar’s mentor too is a student of Maai, Nerulkar gets drawn to the teachings of Maai via the secret recordings of the lectures she gave in 1972.
The Disciple spans several decades and shows Nerulkar battling self doubt, crises of faith while showing the sacrifice and struggle that goes into understanding of Indian classical music.
Since the film requires the actors to be capable singers and musicians, the film comprises almost entirely of newcomers who are primarily fit that bill. The Disciple heavily relies on the actors giving realistic performances.
Debutante Aditya Modak, who plays the protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar, gets most of the screen time and plays his part perfectly. He gives a restrained, naturalistic performance. He manages to convey a variety of his emotions – restlessness, self doubt, hatred, anger in his entire struggle without ever raising his voice or any dramatic actions. With such a nuanced performance, he is as good as any seasoned veterans in the industry.
76 year old Dr. Arjun Dravid essays the role of Nerulkar’s mentor, Pandit Vinayak Pradhan. He is an ailing old man who performs in small gatherings and teaches a few students. Dravid plays his role well. His relationship with Nerulkar is at once close but formal.
In such realistic films, a good performance is one that is not jarring or particularly noticeable. The film succeeds on this front as everyone does justice to their respective parts.
The Disciple is Chaitanya Tamhane’s second film after his first feature length film, Court (2014), won the National Award and became India’s entry to the Oscars that year. Tamhane continues to thrive in the realistic cinema niche that he carved for himself in his 2014 venture.
Writer-director-editor Tamhane has complete control of the film. Every frame has been meticulously created and the writing mimics real life. The dialogue is naturalistic without any prominent exposition. The direction is subtle.
The editing is understated and the cinematography largely consists of long static takes or long takes with slow fluid movement. All the elements of the film come together seamlessly, to create a feeling of peace and calm that is accentuated by the beautiful music.
The film explores several themes at once — the purpose of life, the cost of excellence, the exploitation of artists, the nature of myths and legends, the evolution of art through the times and much more. The film does not have that many dialogues but is dense.
The Disciple’s use of the mediums of television, YouTube, cassettes, is interesting and something that is rarely seen on film itself. It comments on the state of art in today’s world while also highlighting Nerulkar’s state of mind.
Character driven, open films usually cannot stick the landing. Fortunately, the ending of The Disciple is as perfect and satisfying as can be in such films and the film ends on a high.
With a runtime of over two hours, The Disciple lags quite a lot. The film accomplishes what it set out to do. It is a character study of an Indian classical vocalist who is questioning himself. But in its aspirations of exploring conventionally ‘boring’ topics while being ultra realistic, the film suffers a lot and is tedious quite often.
There is not much action on screen as most of the conflict is internal. There have been musical dramas in the past which have focused on the self loathing disciple who strives for greatness, like Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film, Whiplash.
Chazelle’s flashy, cinematic treatment of potentially tedious subject matter like jazz and music schools, while remaining focussed on the characters themselves, made the film much more entertaining and gripping.
The Disciple has excellent characters with internal conflicts but without any external conflicts, as a result the film does not go anywhere.
The Disciple is a masterfully made character study with excellent performances that leaves you with a lot of food for thought. But its sparse treatment by Tamhane, makes the film a demanding watch that would be appreciated primarily by avid cinephiles.