Before seeing the disciple, I knew nothing about Indian or North Indian classical music. By the end of the film, I knew a bit more, though I would still have a hard time keeping track of the different intonations the singers bring to their performances, or explaining how a raga works. (that’s the musical framework that allows artists to improvise). Thankfully, no experience is needed to appreciate The Disciple, which is as much a welcome introduction to a kind of music we rarely hear on screen as it is a richly layered story of one young man’s artistic struggle.
his name is sharad, and he was portrayed by aditya modak with great depth and emotional subtlety. it’s 2006 and 24-year-old sharad lives in mumbai with his grandmother, works occasionally but spends most of his time studying his chosen art form. Indian classical music not only requires impeccable technique and brilliant improvisation. it’s an all-consuming discipline, demanding a level of spiritual purity that singers can spend a lifetime trying to achieve.
We learn some of this from the lectures Sharad listens to while riding his motorcycle at night in Mumbai, in scenes that capture a calmer side of this famously bustling city. we also spend a lot of time watching and listening to him practice. writer and director chaitanya tamhane immerses us in this music, allowing us to get used to its different sounds and rhythms.
sharad is completely dedicated to his craft, but an erratic artist at best. His uninspired singing gets him kicked out early from a young artist competition, and his former teacher and guru doesn’t hesitate to criticize him during rehearsals and even during a public performance. the disciple throws cold water on the idea, cherished by so many inspiring movies, that all it takes is hard work and a little luck. is a relentless portrait of artistic frustration.
About halfway through, the film roughly jumps to the present and becomes an almost satirical depiction of the Indian music scene. Sharad is older and much more cynical, working as a school teacher and trying to keep his acting career afloat. he watches with both contempt and envy as a younger singer becomes an overnight sensation on an American idol-style reality show. And in perhaps the film’s most emotionally lacerating scene, he has an ill-advised meeting with a veteran music critic who harshly disparages Sharad’s heroes, including his beloved guru.
We critics, of course, are the convenient villains of movies. but what distinguishes the disciple is how justly he treats all his characters and how scrupulously he refuses to take sides. Tamhane sympathizes with Sharad through all of his disappointments, and clearly shares his belief that his art is worth pursuing and preserving. But he’s also too honest a filmmaker to indulge Sharad’s self-pity.
Even the director’s exquisite visual approach, aided here by Polish cinematographer Michal Sobocinski, ends up subtly undermining Sharad and putting his struggles into perspective. As in Tamhane’s excellent 2014 legal drama Court, nearly every scene consists of a single uninterrupted shot, framed by careful separation of characters. We are drawn to the small cramped rooms where Sharad practices, and the large, crowded music theaters where she performs. This is Modak’s screen debut, and the lack of close-ups makes her performance all the more impressive. Even from a distance, and with very few words, he conveys Sharad’s bitterness and disappointment as her life refuses to go according to plan.
While The Disciple harkens back to classic Indian films like Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, it also has stylistic echoes of Alfonso Cuaron’s equally meditative and superbly photographed film Roma. That’s no coincidence: Tamhane, 34, was sponsored by Cuaron and worked on the set in Rome. Cuarón in turn provided guidance on The Disciple and is credited as executive producer. there is something poignant about that, given that the story focuses on the student-teacher relationship and the way artistic traditions are passed on. the disciple may tell a story about failure, but it’s a triumphant achievement by a talented film artist.