London Film Festival 2020
The worst thing any artist can accept is their own mediocrity. No budding artist picks up a guitar or a paintbrush for the first time hoping to have a middling career. But the simple and sad fact is that only the tiniest percentage of creatives ever make it to the top. The Disciple charts the fortunes of one such man, an Indian classical music singer named Sharad (younger self, Arun Dravid; older self, Aditya Modak) with gentle savagery, providing a character portrait that is both deeply wise and darkly comic.
As a young man, he looks up to his guru as a kind of demigod, even if his improvised singing never seems up to his high standards. He also listens to the lectures of the famous Maai while on his motorcycle — shot in long and meditative takes. She was never recorded performing, but preaches nuggets such as “Indian classical music is an eternal quest” and “your mind has to be unblemished”, connecting the purity of the Raga to broader Hindi spirituality.
It may have been easy back in the day to focus entirely on your music, and to connect it with your spiritual self — the modern world offers far too many distractions. One juxtaposition in particular (which I won’t ruin here) is masterful in its cutting, bleak humour. The Disciple asks what does it mean to be a classical musician in a world overrun with audience members on their iPhones, mean YouTube comments, and vapid talent shows.
For newbies to Indian classical music, it might be a hard push at first to recognise what constitutes a “good” or “bad” performance — instead it’s worth paying attention to Sharad’s facial gestures as he either listens to others or performs himself. Both Dravid and Modak give a masterclass in passive acting, making Sharad less the hero of his own story than an everyman facing down a world he simply can’t control.
Director Chaitanya Tamhane exudes confidence in his handling of the script, allowing images, situations, and the beautiful music to speak for themselves without needing to underline them with flashy cinematic techniques. The unforced passing of time adds to the film’s thematic weight, as Sharan eventually has to figure out who he is; providing a coming-of-age story that lasts well until middle age.
Despite the differences in musical genre, there are shades of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden in The Disciple’s storytelling here, both through the subtle use of locations and the changing of the times. It also shares the subtle, smiling irony of Satyajit Ray‘s Hindi language The Chess Players in its critique of Hindi conventions (one gets the sense that it is not just music that’s being poked at here). While much of the context and conversation is specific to Indian classical music traditions (of which I know nothing) and Hindi culture, the universality and relatability of the story ring true throughout. Sharan may never amount to much, but Tamhane (on his second feature) definitely doesn’t have to worry about the same problem.