By Sourya Chowdhury
At the very beginning of The Disciple, Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature film currently streaming on Netflix, the camera slowly zooms in to focus on the protagonist of the movie, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), accompanying a veteran classical singer on the tanpura.
But the camera takes its time getting there, with Tamhane opening with a long shot that takes in the modest venue and the predominantly older audience and then cuts to a close shot of the singer and his accompanists, before finally deciding to inspect Nerulkar more closely.
This opening sequence sets the tempo of this deeply meditative film on one man’s frustrating quest for excellence in Indian classical music, a quest fraught with perils not only of the technical kind but also of the spiritual. It is indeed a quest to acquire that intangible and unnameable quality that sets the genius apart from the crowd.
That intangible element is hinted at in several audio recordings of an enigmatic classical music teacher, Maai (Sumitra Bhave, exclusively in voice-overs), which Nerulkar listens to obsessively while riding on his bike around Mumbai at night. However, one can never really put his finger on this elusive element or try to define its components. One cannot even be sure if this quality that sets the best apart from the rest is innate or can be acquired through rigorous practice. The director asks the viewer to make up his own mind.
Nerulkar dedicates the best years of his life to this esoteric art. Taking rigorous lessons from his guruji, the veteran performer we see in the first scene, and true to the age-old gurukul tradition, attends to the aging teacher suffering from progressively frail health.
His search for excellence reminds one of another struggling performer, Llewyn Davis, a folk musician trying to find his feet in ’60s New York in Coen Brothers’ delightfully eccentric Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Like Nerulkar, Davis dedicates his life to his art and rejects all other forms of employment, but seemingly lacks that something special that someone like Bob Dylan possesses.
But where the Coen Brothers go for irony and generous doses of dark humour hiding the pathos of the situation, The Disciple’s tone is sombre and consciously serious.
The realism is pitch perfect as we continue to observe Nerulkar’s development (or the lack of it) even as he continues to age and becomes a music teacher in the big city, gaining weight and a moustache but still struggling to discover that intangible transcendence that he believes is the final step in his evolution as a classical artiste.
He is an extremely self-aware artiste and there is an element of foreshadowing in the flashback scenes with his father, a great classical music enthusiast and researcher who never had the singing chops to become a pro, as attested by Nerulkar himself.
Nerulkar continues to perform in small-time programmes in front of barely-interested listeners and continues to reject (or suffer from the lack of) a normal life.
For Nerulkar, unlike Davis, the goal is ostensibly two-fold; fame and glory as a classical singer, a performer at prestigious events such as the Dover Lane Festival, as well as the spiritual transcendence of the true classical music performer (interestingly, we only hear of such programmes in the film but never actually see them) and the completeness as an artiste that the enigmatic Maai speaks of.
Is it a trap? A famed music critic, who destroys the aura around Maai as well as Nerulkar’s guru over pegs of whiskey, certainly thinks so. His pragmatism lies in stark contrast to the zeal and reverence that inflects the protagonist’s engagement with classical music.
The critic treats the art form in terms of technique only, and the director only offers this as one way to approach classical music, not revealing which way his sympathies hinge.
Instead, he chooses to portray Nerulkar’s Sisyphean toil as painstakingly as the singer who continues to seek mastery over his artistry.
Tamhane is only two films old but is already in the process of mastering a distinct mode of storytelling, auteur-like in his predisposition for long, lingering shots, naturalism and loving portrayal of the mundane.
But where Court, his sterling debut feature, succeeded in startling his viewers with the bite of the satire and commentary he managed to engender from showing, not telling, The Disciple mostly remains a peregrination on the surface.
Modak is brilliant as the eternal disciple but this is a more personal narrative than Court, which had a much broader spectrum and drags a little in the second part.
Even the scene featuring the age-old battle between Hindustani classical and more contemporary forms of music, including fusion, may come across as a little hackneyed to the Indian viewer, but was probably necessary for Tamhane’s international viewers to contextualise the position of the form of music Nerulkar practises in the Indian music ecospace.
But Tamhane’s masterstroke might lie in actually letting the form of the narrative echo the content. While Hindustani classical music can reach a realm of ethereality when presented by the masters and leave listeners in a trance, the movie does not really strive to enthral the viewers with the beauty of the music.
Yes, there are some great musical interludes as expected in a film of this kind, but the stress is not on the music but on the toil of the protagonist to master the art form. Hence, most performances are snippets of khayals by Nerulkar or his guru. The movie never quite lets the listeners drift away to a different world on the wings of music. We are jarred back to Nerulkar’s humdrum reality within moments.
There is no attempt to compose fresh pieces of music for the film like recent shows (Bandish Bandits) on Indian classical music. The enigmatic Maai is only heard lecturing and never once do we get to hear how transcendental singing should look like (assuming Maai is the epitome of such an artiste).
The denial of any transcendental element in the film encapsulates the struggles of the disciple attempting to become the master.
Whether he succeeds or not is ostensibly the raison d’etre of the movie, but Tamhane’s focus is on the journey rather than the destination. It is indeed a journey fraught with difficulties, with uncertainties and moments of pure existential crisis, but it is also a journey that helps the director mount a fascinating character study of a talented and dedicated performer frustratingly short of being a genius.
Sourya Chowdhury began his career as a sports journalist with The Statesman before shifting to Hindustan Times, Delhi. He currently works as a programme officer at All India Radio, Kolkata. He writes fiction in both English and Bengali and dabbles in music in his spare time. He holds an M.A. and MPhil in English literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
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