Cosmopolitan cinephiles quickly become adept at finding their way around screen depictions of cultures that they may not be familiar with. But what happens when a film shows a particular culture within a culture, and we find ourselves without signposts? Sometimes we have to trust ourselves to the logic of a film, and accept that certainty and stable landscapes are not always what we come to the cinema for.

With Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple – the second film from the Indian director of the much-applauded Court (2014) – some things are clear. The young hero Sharad, played by real-life musician Aditya Modak, is a dedicated singer of the Indian music form known as khayal. He has devoted himself to studying the art of the classical raag, in the highly disciplined style of his teacher (played by Dr Arun Dravid), and following the philosophical teachings of a legendarily rigorous female guru named Maai. One of the key leitmotifs of this eminently musically-structured film is a hypnotic series of sequences in which Sharad rides his moped through the deserted streets of Mumbai at night, listening to Maai’s words on his headphones.

So the film is about the search for artistic perfection – that much is clear. What won’t be clear until the end is the question of whether Sharad is capable of such perfection, and if the kind of dream he’s pursuing is worth the sacrifices and humiliations that he will face. As with all tales of devotion to art – whether it’s in the stories of Henry James, or in the jazzman’s odyssey of Whiplash (2014), in many ways not dissimilar to The Disciple – we are often left wondering whether artistic/spiritual nobility is a worthwhile end in itself, or whether the more worldly rewards of the public sphere are perhaps a saner goal?

That’s what is so appealingly tantalising about The Disciple. On one level, the film seems to embody a version of the purity that Sharad pursues: it’s a slow, stately Indian drama in the contemplative tradition of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul. But it also sometimes explodes into bursts of, let’s say, worldliness, as when it’s pastiching the flashy, neon-soaked talent shows that become a platform for a young woman, another gifted musician we meet. 

And here’s the riddle for the viewer who doesn’t know the ins and outs of Indian music: who is to say that the flashily non-purist music made by the young woman is beneath our consideration, even if Sharad considers it beneath him? Should we rebuke ourself for enjoying another piece of music heard in concert when Sharad sniffs at it? Is he a super-discerning connoisseur, or just a snob? And what, for non-adepts of contemporary Indian tastes, does it mean when we learn that devotional music is all the vogue in Sharad’s world, while classical music is not?

The Disciple (2020)

Not having the specialist knowledge to answer these questions may actually make The Disciple all the more teasing and alluring to watch. And clearly Tamhane, with production input from Alfonso Cuarón, has made his film for an international audience of non-initiates, who will find themselves captivated by The Disciple’s world, and its musics, while being in some ways as uncertain about the meaning of what we hear as Sharad is uncertain about the path he’s taking.

Not just about Indian music, The Disciple is more widely and provocatively a film about art – and, if you care to read it that way, perhaps this year’s most eloquent statement about cinema as art, and its fate in a complex commercial world.