The Disciple | Written and Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane | 130 min | Netflix
An earlier version of this review was posted on FITI in September 2020 as part of my coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Back in 2015, Carbon Arc Cinema screened Chaitanya Tamhane’s first feature, Court, the delightfully droll satire of the Indian criminal justice system. It explores a case of a folk singer who may have inspired a sewer worker to commit suicide through his songs. Tamhane’s second feature is another examination of Indian culture, a remarkably thoughtful, nuanced look at the pursuit of excellence and the acceptance of failure — once again with music at its core. If you can imagine a Hindustani Whiplash as your jumping-off point, before expanding outward, you’re on your way.
Aditya Modak plays a 20-something classical music student, Sharad Nerulkar, living in Mumbai who’s desperate to live up to the impossibly high standards of his art — we flash back to his childhood where his father instilled in him the rigid import of greatness, inspired by a performer who never was recorded beyond secret tapes of her spoken voice espousing the impossible philosophy of this traditional music — you can only be great with 10 lifetimes of devotion. Sharad learns from a guru (Arun Dravid) passing on the same lessons, but Sharad may not have the talent required, even while he has the discipline.
Tamhane shoots most of his film with characters in a comfortable middle-ground. It’s democratizing, and frames Sharad as part of a broad community. That said, he cares deeply for his dreams to the exception of the people around him. But, when we flash forward a decade, we see through the framing of an Idol style show the tension between what a new generation wants versus the old, and how Sharad’s entire belief system may have been constructed on lies.
There’s a scene where, in the midst of a performance, his remaining hope in himself shatters just as he’s achieving something emotionally transcendent — he’s become so self-critical, he can’t appreciate the moment.
I’m sure there’s a lot that’s particular to the role of classical music within the Indian society that gets lost in translation, but what’s entirely universal is the exploration of the value of art, the negotiations with mediocrity, and finding a way to live with yourself through the many humiliations of putting your creativity into the world. The Disciple is seriously impressive, one of the best films I had the pleasure of seeing last year. Now that it’s arrived on Netflix, be sure to add it to your queue.