“The Disciple” Is a Wonder-Filled Dive into Indian Classical Music

“The Disciple” Is a Wonder-Filled Dive into Indian Classical Music May 2, 2021

In my college dorm, a hallmate had a memorable sticker on his door: “In search of the eternal buzz.”  While I’m pretty sure he had mood-altering substances in mind, I’m on a similar quest as a film critic.  I want something distinctive, something that gives me a dopamine rush of wonder.

So far this year, The Disciple has suffused my neurons with its most exquisite buzz.  It displaced me to a locale I’d never been, the headspace of a North Indian raga singer.  Just as importantly, it’s stylistically brilliant, in a fashion that serves its story fantastically.

Sharad (Aditya Modak) eyeing his guru (Arun Dravid), in “The Disciple”

Let me give you a few examples of this style:

  • As our young protagonist Sharad strives to improve his character and musicianship, he goes for nighttime motorcycle rides around Mumbai. In masterful long takes, shot from a vehicle in front of or next to Sharad, the film speed diminishes to a fraction of its usual.  The only sound we hear is the recording he’s listening to, of a legendary vocalist discussing her philosophy of life and performance.  (And in a nice cinephilic touch, the voice on the recording is that of Sumitra Bhave, a theater and film director in the Marathi language, the same language spoken in The Disciple.)
  • In a clever tease, the film opens with a far-away shot of a stage occupied by a raga singer, and his accompanists on sitar, tabla, and harmonium. In another accomplished long take, the camera slowly zooms in, until we realize the focus is not upon the elderly vocalist, but upon the adoring sitar player to his left.  Without words, this scene expressively reveals the guru-student relationship central to The Disciple.
  • The glorious final scene (which I won’t spoil) is, you guessed it, another long take. Again, with no dialogue, it illustrates the centrality of music to Sharad’s life, no matter where he is or what he’s doing.

The Disciple is only its 34-year-old writer/director’s second feature, but Chaitanya Tamhane shows such incredible talent and confidence.  It’s no wonder his film won big on last year’s COVID-curtailed festival circuit.

From interviews with Tamhane, I gather that all of his actors are musicians first, actors second, thus ensuring that the filmed performances and lessons were fully authentic.  The director even populated his concert scenes with raga admirers, which no doubt enhanced the realistic atmosphere of those sequences, too.

One of the concert scenes in “The Disciple”

It’s fascinating to observe Sharad’s training, a process more psychological than technical.  His education involves hours of vocal practice and regular yoga sessions.  Sharad (Aditya Modak) not only receives musical guidance from his guru Vinayak (Arun Dravid), but intimately observes how his mentor lives.  Sharad sits in on his doctor’s appointments, rubs ointment into his arthritic limbs.

Sharad’s formation unfolds in a manner that feels genuine, across three time periods separated by fades to black.  His unsettled, impetuous mind causes him to get stuck in empty repetition during improvisatory sections (for which his teacher chastises him mid-concert).  In one charming piece of dialogue, Vinayak tells of a maestro who felt a particular raga was angry with him, so he had to perform it again and again for two months until they finally reconciled.

Besides his guru, the other crucial influence for Sharad was his father, a talented but ultimately frustrated musician himself.  We observe their interactions in a couple of delightful flashbacks.  Unfortunately, this narrative thread gets dropped in the second half of The Disciple.

But this loose end is my lone criticism of Tamhane’s film.  So far in 2021, this is the work I’m most excited to revisit – to rekindle that buzz – as I’m sure it will become more rewarding with subsequent viewings.

(The Disciple is available for viewing on Netflix.)


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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