‘The Disciple’: Song of life
The film is about artistes who get tired chasing excellence to make peace with mediocrity, the genuinely talented who are left with no option but to languish in anonymity
Somewhere in the middle of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, set in the world of North Indian classical music, the artiste squares up to the question of the audience. Should she/he bow before the demands of the audience? Should the listeners have the liberty to choose the raga they want the musician to sing/play for them?
The answer comes in the form of a counter-question, a rhetorical one at that: “There are 200 people in the room. And 200 people have 200 minds. How many people will you try to please?”
It is a truth that applies across all forms of art—filmmaking, writing, theatre, painting, photography. How much does the art need to cater to its patrons? Conversely, how honest does the artiste need to be to her/his art, talent, inner yearning and truth? And, to take it even further, as individuals, do we need to live according to our own values or co-opt and compromise to please those around us?
Tamhane’s deep dive into the world of music is, in turn, a profound take on life itself—about our ideals and dilemmas, the decisions we make for ourselves and what we earn and lose in the process of exercising our choices.
In the early days of his journey as a classical Indian vocalist, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) is bent on following the strict norms and disciplined path of devoted but relatively unheralded practitioners like his Guruji (Arun Dravid) and Vidushi Sindhubai Jadhav aka Maai (voice of Sumitra Bhave). He doesn’t want to be weighed down by domesticity or the need to have a “job” in this pursuit of excellence.
But there is the inner restlessness of youth that yoga and meditation can’t control, a sense of doubt in one’s own self, competitiveness when it comes to the peers and fellow students and the angst against materialism stealthily creeping into the profession with performances increasingly driven by predictability and gimmickry than passion.
Over the years, as age catches up with him, and the overt commercialism and cynicism of the world keeps staring back at him, the ideals begin to feel thin on the ground. It’s a world of instant success through TV talent shows and fusion bands which can turn a genuine, vibrant talent into a mere well-groomed face on the poster. The chase for excellence then seems illusory, success unattainable. Will the world ever recognize his talent?
As Sharad tries desperately to keep up, you can witness his decline—gaining weight, doing photoshoots and creating his own website for brand building, stalking other singers, fans and trolls on social media, hobnobbing with uncaring officials. There is no contentment and happiness within.
In playing Sharad, Aditya Modak makes the inner workings of his character’s mind reflect on his face, gestures and body even as he sings beautifully through the film. Hard to imagine that it is the first acting assignment of the chartered accountant and trained classical singer.
Veteran music exponent Arun Dravid is as compelling on screen as Guruji; so is the unique bond between them.
Tamhane recreates the world of classical music impeccably. Each department of filmmaking, from production to music design, works in tandem to build the edifice brick by brick and bring an entire eco-system to life on screen.
On the one hand is the performative space—the concerts and competitions in the old auditoriums in Dadar, Matunga and Kalyan, the tanpura, sarangi and aalaaps, the frisson (and, at times, also the distinct lack of chemistry) between the artiste and the audience.
On the other hand, is the riyaaz (practice) at the feet of the guru, the familial bonds of the guru-shishya parampara where the guru becomes like a quasi-father figure you have a responsibility towards and are answerable to. A personal and professional bond in which you have to let go of the ego and surrender to the higher power he exercises on you.
Tamhane knits it all together with a beautiful thread running through the film, a sutradhar like narrative device—the voice of Maaithat Sharad keeps going back to in his mind, when he goes on long mobike drives in Bombay in the night. All for getting focus and rigour in his practice.
She speaks the unvarnished truth about this long and arduous path, that she refers to in her recorded lectures as “spiritual pursuit”, “eternal quest”, “path to the divine”. One that demands complete surrender and sacrifice and endurance and perseverance. One which disallows any rush or hurry, which may have you keep practicing even till you turn 40.
“If you want to earn money, raise a family then perform love songs or film songs... If you want to walk this path, learn to be lonely and hungry,” she says. Her voice, set to the tanpura, is like a background score, the recurrent melody, the thematic core of the film.
And she talks many truisms—that technically perfect music may still lack soul, that skilfulness alone is not art and that the company of talented people won’t turn you into a genius, if you don’t have the flair within.
Much as the film gives a peep into the admirable pursuit of purity in the classical music tradition, it also tries to offer the counter-narrative. Through a cynical world-weary critic, for instance, who talks of the hierarchy, the exploitation, the myth-making, the religiosity and revivalism within. It remains one incident in the larger narrative, happens in passing and left me asking for more.
But then the film is eventually about Sharad and about a lot many others like him. Those who get tired chasing excellence to make peace with mediocrity, who give up on their craving for recognition to become inconspicuous. The genuinely talented who are left with no option but to languish in anonymity. The Disciple overwhelmed me with adeep sense of loss that underlines it.
The Disciple is streaming on Netflix.