▶︎ The Disciple premiered at the Venice Film Festival and screened in the BFI London Film Festival on 7 October 2020.
If Satyajit Ray’s use of Indian classical music in his films is widely acclaimed – he’s often credited with introducing the West to it through his work with Ravi Shankar on the Apu Trilogy – it wasn’t good enough for everyone. “Satyajit Ray was not a connoisseur of Indian classical music,” the legendary sarod musician Ali Akbar Khan told the Times of India in 2008, a provocation which unsurprisingly became the headline quote of the story.
Ray, Shankar and Khan’s shadows loom large over The Disciple. Its discerning lead character Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) might nod in agreement with Khan’s counter-conventional assertion. A self-professed aficionado of Indian classical music, Nerulkar has strict rules on excellence himself.
The Disciple, which won Best Screenplay as well as the Fipresci critics’ prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, is the new film from writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane. Like Court (2014), the magnificent debut that first brought Tamhane to international attention (winning the Lion of the Future award at Venice six years ago), The Disciple uses a musician’s story to hold a mirror up to Indian society.
Court was about a protest singer marooned in the slow-moving Indian judicial system following the accusation that one of his records caused a manhole worker to commit suicide. The Disciple has less of an elevator-pitch plot, revolving around an Indian classical vocalist and his picaresque efforts to be recognised as a master of his form.
It’s 2006 when The Disciple plays its first note. Nerulkar is training to be an Indian classical vocalist in the Hindustani vocal tradition under the tutelage of the ageing and manipulative Guruji (Dr Arun Dravid). He enters a talent competition but proves unsuccessful: the first of many disappointments. It’s not such a setback, though, because he’s been prepared for failure by the instructional words found on a unique bootleg cassette tape about the pursuit of Indian classical music by a renowned Khayal performer. The tape teaches him that to live the life of a classical musician one must “learn to be lonely and hungry”.
Nerulkar seems determined to turn these words into a prophecy. He is single, estranged from his mother and lives on the breadline with his aunt, earning small amounts of money converting rare tape recordings of lesser-known artists to CD then failing to sell them at concerts of performers he disrespects. He satisfies his sexual desires by masturbating to porn on the Internet. The rest of the time is dedicated to practice.
For all his posturing, Nerulkar is not good enough to make it to the top, and it’s with this revelation that The Disciple begins to sing. Tamhane, who has a quiet cameo as one of the musicians, relates a fascinating time-jumping story about someone failing, with a dominant-teacher-and-frustrated-pupil through-line that plays like an andante version of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.
Like Ray, Tamhane edits his own films, and his flashbacks here recall the use of the technique in Ray’s The Music Room (1958), a film about musical pursuits and hardship that serves as a template for The Disciple. We see Nerulkar as a child, his authoritarian father demanding that he single-mindedly learn the classical method, eschewing his friends – scenes that will bear fruit in the present day as the movie questions India’s patriarchal system and the use of tradition to reinforce rules.
Unlike Ray’s masterpiece, however, Tamhane’s orchestral narrative soon hits some flat notes. A critic revealing the harassment and bullying in the historical classical music scene is underdeveloped, and the lampooning of Pop Idol-type shows seems facile. Still, the scattergun point-scoring tendency doesn’t weaken the film’s biggest and most beguiling supposition: that wellbeing may necessitate giving up on our dreams. It turns out that being a connoisseur isn’t everything.
That narrative conclusion seems to jar with the connoisseurship with which Tamhane approaches framing, which is in the great traditions of Ray and Ozu; he even mocks Western influences on Indian popular cinema and television by sending up the neck-bracing camerawork of reality television. He and Polish cinematographer Michal Sobocinski do construct beguiling slow-motion shots showing Nerulkar riding his motorcycle at night through deserted streets as he absorbs his motivational counselling tapes – but in the main Tamhane prefers a static unobtrusive camera that uses distance to reflect Nerulkar’s state of mind and stunted emotional development. On the evidence of his shot selection, Tamhane intends to steadfastly follow in the footsteps of the great masters, eschewing modern styles and sensibilities, which will make the Nerulkars of the world ecstatic.