Do you know what I love about film? It’s not just about the entertainment, finding those moments of escapism (although 2020 has provided plenty of opportunities to suggest otherwise). I adore films which pose a challenge, films which stray outside your comfort zones, films which educate. To be honest, I had no idea what Indian Classical Music entailed. Occasionally (admittedly through ignorance), I smiled and laughed at how prolonged its harmonies would stretch a great distance. It’s not an everyday exposure for me unless you are ingrained in the culture. But it quickly dawned on me at how meditative Chaitanya Tamhane’s film The Disciple becomes. It’s a skill that has to be perfected – an ‘eternal quest’ as the film suggests. But with calming assurance, those barriers slip away to produce an enriching viewing experience.
It’s no surprise that director Alfonso Cuarón serves as executive producer. There’s a touch of Roma that Tamhane utilises – a quiet, directional patience with isolated emotions wrapped up within the frame. As if time had slowed down to a crawl, the cinematography is a character itself with its slow-burn wandering through the city streets of Mumbai as the camera follows Sharad (Aditya Modak) on his moped listening to the cryptic teachings of Maai. The Disciple takes these otherworldly approaches to its conventional story, and that’s part of its magic.
For the third film of the London Film Festival programme, The Disciple shares a commonality with Mogul Mowgli and The Painter and the Thief. Collectively, they are films about art, where dreams and reality are a duelling force of nature to an outside world that doesn’t understand. Outsiders see such belief and devotion as fruitless pursuits, where the reward is a struggle instead of security. And much like its counterparts, The Disciple is an intimate and melancholic portrait, trying to find purpose to a life devoted to a skill that takes years to master but not everyone can behold its power.
In Sharad, you have a character who is in a constant state of flux. His musical passion started at a young age, imbued by his father’s wishes to practice and sacrifice childhood comforts. He’s attentive, wanting to excel in his craft, but his teacher (played by Arun Dravid) critiques him at every opportunity – including in front of a live audience. He wants success but lacks focus and patience for something that takes a lifetime requiring. In the age of social media and talent shows, he’s a niche artist, a traditionalist, but is seemingly out of touch with the others around him. His pursuit of music is noble at best, devoutly believing he has what it takes to make a name for himself. But the pursuit is a burden to his family, a generational clash that defies financial and traditional expectations such as marriage, having children or paying for rent.
It’s a film mostly about the essence of blind faith, depicted and wrought with solemn sadness. The satisfaction that Tamhane examines is not the defiance and resolve as many would expect, but how struggles can slowly suffocate an artist. Is the dream worth it when the world is telling you otherwise? And The Disciple throws notable tests in his direction to confront its denial. He spends most of his time alone, isolated, masturbating to feel any reciprocation of love. Sharad cannot connect with his audiences whenever he performs, disconnected from reality that is either not remotely interested or thinks he is not as good enough. There’s a master/apprentice relationship with his guru music teacher, hoping he would mimic his teachings. However, it’s a relationship more out of co-dependency rather than spiritual enlightenment, helping him with his underlying medical problems as a duty of care as he ages. And musical legacy is a notable factor that belief of adopting the single-minded, idol-worshipping lifestyle of an artist can mean having your spirit broken if the myths are bigger than what they accomplished.
There’s a beauty behind Aditya’s performance, always carrying a look of quiet indignation as he reflects upon his efforts and life choices. And that struggle is always juxtaposed against the exploits of The Fame India where a young female singer is plucked from obscurity to be loved and adored by the nation. It’s one of many ‘comparative successes’ that the film deploys where Sharad desperately wants to fit in but gradually becoming disillusioned with the progress. At one stage, it becomes so bad that during a music class he teaches, he manages to upset a parent and her teenage son because of his desires to join a band, by suggesting he doesn’t need to study in his class anymore. In films where it’s easy to see yourself as the protagonist, to believe in the fantasy of the hero, and Tamhane brilliantly subverts it.
The Disciple adopts an omnipresent feel to its camera work, often taking lingering pregnant pauses to envelop its star lead. You can classify it as a spirit, free-roaming wherever it pleases to amplify the film’s poignant mood of fear and reconciliation with failure of never reaching the heights of our desired passions. It becomes more impressive and incredible when you realise this is Aditya’s first acting appearance, carrying the weighted performance that’s filled with sensitivity and soul. Tamhane’s film doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel but has the same haunting and residing presence as Inside Llewyn Davis. The complexities of life and its endless contradictions are a topical conversation that is uniquely human.
It won’t be for everyone; the occasional, slow and monotonous pacing tests your patience. But it is unapologetically honest about its cathartic intentions. Its beautiful cinematography and its deep sense of poetry steeped in Indian culture always finds a way to cut through any layers of cynicism. And once that is achieved, you can enjoy it with an open mind.
THE DISCIPLE screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out in UK cinemas 7th October 2020.