4 out of 5 stars

If there’s anything the surfeit of films about aspiring musicians has taught us, it’s almost always the same lessons:  the value of persistence, the necessity of sacrifice, and how hard work always pays off for those who’ve dedicated their lives to a craft. By these films’ worldview, success is almost destined for certain people willing to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into their art. And by these films’ logic, even if those who achieve fame are amongst a select few, it only takes emulating their diligence to become a part of that exclusive club, no matter what medium, discipline, or art form one works in.

Reality, of course, is more nuanced than that, and more unforgiving. Few films are willing to tread into the blunt, often melancholic truth behind success— that it often involves a great amount of serendipity, and that no amount of hard work will fully guarantee someone a seat at the table—but Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is a film that’s effectively expressed this with a measured, silently impactful approach. It’s a brilliant successor to films such as Amadeus (1984) or Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) —both of which have complex viewpoints on artistic success and mediocrity — and one that uses a perspective geared towards Indian classical music (khayal) as well as its culturally distinct tribulations.

The Disciple traces the years-long journey of a young classical musician named Sharad Nerulkar (Aaditya Modak), a vocalist with lofty aspirations for both himself and his music. Like many of his ilk in the cinema of aspiring musicians, he’s ambitious and a bit of a purist, made evident by how he decries the mainstream sensibilities of his contemporaries, relentlessly rehearses for competitions, and callously shoos away interrupting family members. As the film opens, we learn he’s studying under the tutelage of his mordant, no-nonsense mentor, Guruji (Arun Dravid), who regularly gives biting criticism to Sharad in particular with a stoically rigid and acerbic tone. Their main point of contention is that Sharad isn’t feeling the music he’s meant to be singing — even as the hypnotic drone of his tanpura keeps him grounded, his emotional focus seemingly wanders left and right, throwing his music off balance.

Being the ambitious musician that he is, Sharad makes clear his need to overcome these hurdles as soon as he can, but as a legendary khayal singer named Maai (voiced by Sumitra Bhave) states in a lecture tape Sharad listens to during a motorcycle ride —“even 10 lifetimes aren’t enough.” In the lines that follow from Maai’s lecture, Tamhane makes a key part of his film’s thematic focus clear: becoming a legend in the Indian classical music sphere is a cold and tiring road, littered with sacrifice, starvation, and isolation. “There’s a reason why Indian classical music is considered an Eternal Quest,” Maai proclaims, elaborating that it takes a performer of literally impossible discipline and patience to completely master the art form.

In virtually any other film with a similar premise, these claims would have been prescient snippets of foreshadowing, a premonition of the toil the protagonist endures so they can inevitably reach their transcendent goals. The Disciple’s primary achievement, however, is how it instead phrases these statements as genuine, more realistic insecurities. What if, even after all he’s worked for over the years, Sharad still can’t endure this cold and hard path? What if he still doesn’t have what it takes to fully grasp his musical abilities? And what if the traditional art form he wants to master is slowly losing its cultural relevance over time?

One of The Disciple’s noteworthy stylistic qualities is how it seems to cinematically reflect khayal‘s mesmeric and adroit nature, an aesthetic that may have been further influenced by the film’s executive producer, Alfonso Cuarón (Roma). Having met in 2016 through Rolex’s “Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative,” Tamhane and Cuarón extensively collaborated on The Disciple’s production, with Cuarón offering feedback on the screenplay and overseeing a vast majority of post-production. Over the past several years, the two of them seem to have established a professional rapport, building off of and supporting each other’s artistic strengths.

The end result of this collaboration is a film with immense technical polish; one that shows traces of Roma’s breathtaking scope and glacial aesthetic, yet still fully displays Tamhane’s distinct cinematic voice. The film’s narrative tone shows little interest in explosive melodrama or frantically inclined pacing, allowing the emotional weight of certain scenes to subtly leave an impact, and giving the overall film an alluring sense of flow. Further enhancing this slow-burn effect is cinematographer Michał Sobociński’s calculated, slow-moving camerawork, which makes fantastic use of framing characters and objects in wide environments such as auditoriums or cityscapes. In some scenes, the camera leads into unexpected areas of focus after pushing in on a seemingly obvious subject; in others, the audience’s attention is drawn to the world around the characters, as the film’s wider aspect ratio is used to the absolute fullest capability.

While many of the actors in The Disciple are primarily Indian classical musicians with robust acting abilities, it’s Aaditya Modak who delivers one of the most standout lead performances of the year so far as Sharad. Few actors are able to exhibit restrained emotions as effectively as Modak does in this film, which only makes Sharad’s repressed temperament and aspirational struggles all the more believable to watch. Whether it’s through the stern rant he delivers to a friend after a subpar concert they attend, the look of disappointment he shows as he takes criticism from Guruji during a performance, or the way he glares at a classical singer’s transition to popular voice on an X Factor-esque reality TV show, every detail of Modak’s delivery is of great significance to Sharad’s troubled, multi-faceted character. There’s a clear conflict between ambition, spirituality, and frustration that Modak navigates without any blatant, outspoken expression, which contributes heavily to The Disciple’s silent and subtle emotional potency.

In regards to the film’s narrative structure, it might take some time for most audiences to fully pick up on its nonlinearity—an element introduced somewhat early on. Interspersed between present-day scenes are moments from Sharad’s childhood, with a young Sharad being taught music by his ex-musician father (Kiran Yadnyopavit), perhaps to a somewhat overbearing degree—again, a typical trope present in many films about burgeoning young singers. What The Disciple manages to accomplish with these scenes, however, is not merely an insight into the genesis of Sharad’s musical passions, but also a retrospectively harsh look into moments that are tinged by the regrets Sharad has accrued over the years. These same regrets also begin to drearily cloud the film’s first hour once Tamhane transitions into The Disciple’s second half, where Sharad silently descends into envy and elitism as he helplessly watches his peers succeed without him—especially through the same contemporary tendencies he so frequently denounces.

Ultimately, The Disciple’s narrative remains uninterested in a tangible dramatic destination, either because the cost of reaching it is impossible, or because there is no destination at all to begin with. Sharad’s journey is marked with a growing awareness that the art and music he loves is not only oblivious to his effort, but is also gradually fading into cultural obscurity within an ever-changing political climate. While there are climactic moments of bitter realization and reckoning for Sharad, the film never uses them to exclaim overarching, profound lessons about the hardships of success in one cathartic burst. Rather, they’re used as various bricks in the wall of passableness, irrelevance, and misfortune that Sharad—try as he might—finds himself no longer able to climb or surpass. 

There are several difficult questions about art that The Disciple posits to its audience — questions about who art is really for, what one has to sacrifice to seek approval for creating art, and if there even is such a thing as eternal mediocrity in art — but The Disciple acknowledges that these are all nebulous questions, ones without concrete, defined answers. As far as the film is concerned, perhaps that acknowledgment isn’t a bleak or defeatist realization, but instead, the one honest truth about art worth expressing.


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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Chaitanya Tamhane.
starring: Aaditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave, Deepika Bhide Bhagwat & Kiran Yadnyopavit.