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The Disciple review: Quiet, masterful study of passion and ability

Release Date: 30 Apr 2021


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Sonal Pandya

Chaitanya Tamhane’s follow-up to Court (2015) is an insightful look into the world of Hindustani classical music, with a remarkable performance by lead actor Aditya Modak.

You hear the music before any visual comes on screen, and the stage is set (literally) for a musical performance. Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) performs alongside his guruji Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Dr Arun Dravid), watching in wonderment. From the first scene itself, Sharad’s devotion is clear.

Hoping to be noticed for his talent, the 24-year-old Sharad trains for competitions and recitals. Encouraged by his father from childhood, the young man is rigid and focused on his music. But despite his dedication, he is unable to make the leap like his guruji.

After exploring the murky legal system through the lower judiciary in Mumbai with Court (2015), writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane delves into the world of Hindustani classical music and its taxing demands. Like his debut film, The Disciple is set in Mumbai. However, the slow, unhurried pace and setting is much like Court in its examination of the characters and the world they inhabit.

Pradhan is getting on in years but still performs when called. His guru, Maai, the legendary vocalist Sindhubai Jadhav, is also Sharad's idol and now lives on as his motivation through the old audiotapes she has left behind.

Maai, whose quavering voice is provided by the late filmmaker Sumitra Bhave, states that ten lifetimes aren’t enough to learn khayal music and that one must surrender and sacrifice everything in the eternal quest for musical perfection.

At first, Sharad is ready to do this. He works for peanuts at a thankless job converting old performances into CDs, and spends his time practising music or learning from his guru. But as the years pass, Sharad is still stuck and waiting for something more.

The drama moves forward in time to a 36-year-old Sharad, now sporting a bit of weight around his waist and a moustache. He is now a teacher himself, but the rigidity towards classical music and its principles has not changed. In a scene, he bluntly tells a young student wanting to join a fusion band at college not to return to his classes.

The Disciple also has a small subplot that tracks the rise of reality show contestant Shashwati (Kristy Banerjee) who goes from being an aspiring classical vocalist to performing on stage, all dolled up with dancers around her. The use of the song 'Muskaanein Jhooti Hai' from Talaash (2012) in one of the performances is also revealing. Sharad’s face while he silently watches her leaves viewers wondering whether he is fascinated or disdainful.

Modak’s performance is the essence of The Disciple. Like Sharad, he commits to his transformation over the years. Sharad knows there is a problem with his singing; "I’m repeating myself," he says, but it takes him long before he eventually walks away.  Modak, both as the young and the middle-aged Sharad, has two moments where his emotions overtake him and he nails both scenes.

Tamhane, who has also edited the feature, masterfully explores myriad themes through this story. There is Sharad’s fractured relationship with his father, who is dealing with his own struggles, his strained telephone exchanges with his mother, and his own quest for perfection and the realization that it may be futile.

Cinematographer Michal Sobocinski has beautifully framed scenes, especially in the first half of the film, showing off the architecture and design of old Mumbai. The slow-motion shots of Sharad listening to Maai and riding his motorcycle through Mumbai at night are contemplative and almost hypnotic.

The production design by Pooja Talreja and Ravin D Karde packs in so much detail that you find yourself noticing small things, especially in Tamhane’s long takes.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell had written about the 10,000 hour rule, stating that anyone wanting to master their field needs to devote that much time. However, as Maai notes in the film, the quest for perfection in classical music is lifelong.

The Disciple subtly but surely explores how no matter how desperately you want your dream to come true, it just may not be on the cards. And sometimes one is a better person for understanding one’s limitations.

Netflix is now streaming The Disciple.

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