Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature film, The Disciple, deserves all the recognition it has received at various film festivals over the past year, including awards at the Venice and Toronto festivals, and from the foreign press who have seen the film. The film, which has Gravity director and Roma Alfonso Cuaron as executive producer, is an equally good, if not better, continuation of Tamhane’s acclaimed Court (2014). And although both films are polar opposites in terms of their themes, there are similarities in the way they unfold.
The Disciple delves into the complex world of classical music, the guru-shishya tradition, the stories and ‘myths’ that surround the exponents of the musical gharanas. It shows this through Sharad’s sincerity, as well as his struggle for recognition, doubt, and acceptance. Introduced to classical music as a child by his father (played by Kiran Yadnyopavit), Sharad takes it under the tutelage of Pradhan, who is a disciple of Sindhubai Jadhav, also known as Maai. Riyaz makes up most of her time at her grandmother’s house, where she has been staying after her father’s untimely death. His guru, to whom Sharad has almost dedicated his life, tells him to be patient with the practice. “Until we were 40, all we did was riyaz,” the guru proudly tells 24-year-old Sharad, who has become restless with the pace at which his life unfolds. Lack of appreciation adds to his self-doubt.
Cut to 12 years later and Sharad is now a music teacher at a university and does shows too. However, nagging doubt persists, as does his dedication to his guru, who has now become completely dependent on Sharad. Another constant companion throughout all these years is the set of recordings of Maai music lectures that Sharad listens to whenever he can. His thoughts on being reluctant to public performances, music is a divine connection with God and not a means to entertain the audience, etc. have created a mythical and divine image of Maai in Sharad’s mind. He seems to have questions, but he suppresses them because of his devotion to Maai and his guru, Vinayak Pradhan. But will his ‘bhakti’ result in better performances? Will it make you a name that people will recognize? These questions plague Sharad’s mind. When he sees a young woman succeed on a singing reality show, it hurts. He shows him a dream that he could not achieve, perhaps because of his devotion and rigidity. Doubts and questions gradually take over; making him make a decision he never thought he would make: to leave.
During the course of the film, music sets the tone for what happens on screen. From yearning to restlessness to sincerity to mastery, you feel it all through the music, and kudos to Aneesh Pradhan (music design) and Anita Kushwaha and Naren Chandavarkar (sound design) for that!
The actors are perfectly chosen. Aditya Modak and Dr. Arun Dravid (both classical singers) bring authenticity to the table, not only in terms of music, but also in conveying their thoughts without having to say them out loud. His guru-shishya The relationship is the highlight of the movie. The voice of the late Sumitra Bhave almost creates this person in front of your eyes that he is a legend, but a loner. The voice stays with you. Kiran Yadnyopavit and vocalist Deepika Bhide Bhagwat excel in small but effective roles.
The review will be incomplete without a mention of the cinematography, by Michal Sobocinski, and the editing, by Tamhane himself. Sobocinski’s frames are captivating and don’t let your attention drift away from the protagonist. It’s hard to put into words, but Sobocinski captures Sharad’s inner turmoil, not just when he’s alone, but even when he’s part of the crowd. Tamhane, on the other hand, uses stills to bring you some of the most defining moments from the film. Tamhane knows where a take should take a while and where to get her audience out of it and onto the next. However, this is a slow-paced movie and you need patience to sit down and watch it. For viewers who have now identified with shorter, sharper films, it could be a problem to sit back and watch this two-hour plus drama.
The Disciple is a rag unto himself, one that explores the complexity of human emotions, but one that won’t necessarily appeal to everyone. Without saying much, it says a lot. In the end, it all comes down to the last shot, in a Mumbai venue, with the protagonist in the corner of the painting and a blind man passing by the train car singing a folk song. From being in the center of the frame, to moving to a corner, Sharad’s path has changed, but he has not yet stepped out of the frame. It is the ironic end of a search.