Northern Indian classical music sounds like nothing else: Mixing the sitar and the meditational warbling of improvised vocals known as “raga,” the music provides an ancient quality that can often hit profound grounds. While the art form of Hindustani music hasn’t ever really extended to the west, the passion for it is still present… for some. We see that passion in Sharad (real-life musician and acting newcomer Aditya Modak) the protagonist in Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore drama The Disciple, the story of an idealistic young performer who dreams of capturing the magic of a musical tradition that he may lack the talent to achieve himself. In Tamhane’s dreamy character study, the undulating raga melodies serves as a transformational portal to self-discovery that places the audiences in the confines of its entrancing power.
The Disciple is the follow-up to Tamhane’s strong first feature, Court, which managed to dig into the injustices of the Indian legal system while exploring the lives of several basically decent people within it. Here, he turns his withering but empathetic gaze onto Sharad, as he takes cues from his wizened mentor (veteran singer Arun Dravid) and dreams of obtaining high marks as a classical music vocalist, absorbing enthusiasm for the process from his late father. But there’s a reason only an elite few manage to excel at the craft, and it doesn’t take long to see that Sharad might not have the right stuff. Sharad has committed himself to spiritual convictions about the art form, and the movie hovers within them in a developing blend of mystery and awe. With his friends, he obsesses over old tapes of obscure vocalists, baffled by the homogenized sounds that come from its most famous living practitioners. Roaming across Mumbai on his motorcycle, he listens to audio tapes from Maii, the raga guru who taught his own mentor, as she rattles off the daunting philosophy behind what it takes to master the craft.
That may be fine for his sacred, dedicated nature of the pursuit, but it also doesn’t help that Sharad’s a romantic loner whose mom hassles him about getting “a real job.” Sharad’s trapped somewhere between ambition and arrested development: He lives with his aunt, and spends far too much time attending to his teacher’s physical needs, even as the man offers nothing but discouragement. To the untrained ear, Sharad has obvious talent, but the world seems to think otherwise. As Tamhane cycles through Sharad’s miserable routine, from nervous practice sessions to late-night porn viewing, the movie hints at the potential for something else, but the filmmaker has subtler intentions. As the years rush by, Sharad’s forced to interrogate the mythology and the adoration melts away and a new sense of responsibility takes hold, the movie finding its footing as a notable coming-of-age drama that builds its argument from the inside out. Using the bustling Mumbai cityscape as a backdrop that’s at violent odds with Sharad’s contemplative mission, Tamhane sets the movie to follow Sharad through three distinct eras as he grows older and continues to internalize his frustration over his professional inertia. (Modak’s physical transformation from a nimble and clean twenty-four-year-old to a mustachioed music instructor with a dad-bod is a superb storytelling device.)
Sharad continually experiences a king of ineffable anxiety that can only be expressed through the abstract language of music, but even that keeps failing him, too. Throughout, Tamhane treats his camera observationally; sitting it with the character as his resentment percolates just beneath the surface. When one producer tells Sharad, years into his career, that he’d be a good fit for an upcoming showcase of “newcomers,” the look of disappointment on his face practically pops off the screen. The same effect settles in when he watches the superficial excitement of an “American Idol” type show for Indian singers, or when he broses negative comments about one of his own performances on YouTube. Sharad’s a purist about his music, but the modern world has no sympathy for his delicate plight. (Though its quite different in tone, style, and intensity, there are some comparisons to be made with Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.)
Tamhane does such a fine job of bringing individual encounters to vivid life that it’s unfortunate when the movie breaks that spell through flashbacks. Alfonso Cuarón has an executive producer credit on The Disciple, and it’s easy to see why the filmmaker would have an affinity for Tamhane’s glacial style: Their movies have an evident kinship for the way they create a complete immersion into one character’s world, navigating the texture and boundaries of memory through subjective experience. In The Disciple, those memories cloud the reality of the moment, forcing a reckoning that finally comes to the fore in a riveting climactic performance. The Disciple charts one man’s quest toward humility in a society that has been defined by self-reflection for a millennia. Sharad meditates throughout the movie, but the enigma of this thought process hovers as a question mark throughout. From the first scene until its closing moments, the movie hints at a big moment that never quite arrives, but the lasting qualities comes with the film’s big picture. The Disciple is more about the journey than the destination, with a conclusion that suggests the student never really becomes the teacher when the subject is his own life. Soothingly measured and immersed in an all-consuming world of failed dreams, The Disciple‘s intimate focus on the inner-struggles of an artist finds passionate universality in its withering idealism.
The Disciple was screened at the 2020 New York Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.