Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is slow, but also unfailingly intelligent

Movies on classical art forms are rare to come by in Indian cinema. Straight away one could rattle off names like Shankarabharanam, Sagara Sangamam, Natsamrat and then go blank because the Indian cinema has always been constricted by commercial exigencies.

Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, available on Netflix, can find itself in this pantheon for his laser-like focus on bringing across the trials and tribulations involved in trying to excel in the brutal field of Indian classical singing.

This Marathi-language movie is about a 15-year journey of its titular character Sharad Nerulkar, played by Aditya Modak with a rare mix of self-assurance and self-delusion, who tries to make it big in the Alwar gharana of singing. Tamhane’s sophomore effort is pretty similar to his masterful debut Court, which laid bare the ludicrousness of the Indian judicial system. That movie too dealt with an artform that has always been at the fringes, street performance.

The extra important character in both of the movies is the Mumbai that Bollywood chooses to ignore. The Disciple is set in and around the predominantly Marathi-speaking areas of Dadar, Sion and there are references to Mulund, Kalyan.

Whenever Sharad finds himself in the throes of crippling self-doubt he would take off on his motorbike and ride the Dadar flyover while listening to the lectures of a supposedly unsung genius singer whom he would refer to as ‘Maai’.

Her lectures on how to immerse oneself in this bottomless pit of misery that promises redemption at some distant point keeps Sharad going initially even though his world is collapsing. His Guruji, a casually profound and exacting Arun Dravid, gives him a Malcolm Gladwell-ish advice of having to practice till the age of 40 before one could claim modicum of mastery in a field that Maai says demands “surrender and sacrifice”.

“If you want to earn money, raise a family, then perform love songs or film songs, instead of going on the Eternal Quest,” is her sage advice. Almost every scene in The Disiciple is a perfect blend of cinematic genius and the quirkily quotidian. Here’s one instance: In the latter half of the movie we see Sharad, already feeling defeated, flits through the TV and sees prime time news of people being lynched for consuming beef and lands on a channel showing Indian Idol.

We see a similar scene play out in Court when the lawyer is bored with a rant by Arnab Goswami. Tamhane’s juxtaposition of politics and lassitude is pretty stunning and one only hopes he delves deeper into that. He never shies away from commentary. There’s a scene where Sharad expresses his deep-seated sadness to his elder colleague about how boring and corrupted his field is. This is preceded by a scene at an NCPA-like auditorium where he tries to sell music of epically-good-but-unknown singers and the patrons would rather want devotional music or the run-of-the-mill stuff. Tamhane’s movie is a giant rebuttal to that Bukowski quote, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”

Some of the movie’s most enchanting moments are when the singing happens. Michal Sobocinski’s stellar camerawork, shorn of any off-putting point-of-view shots, adds another layer of mystique to the proceedings. Everything looks pitch perfect, right from the seating arrangement to the lighting, which instantly reminded me of my sojourns to places like these in Matunga, Bandra, Sion until a few years ago.

Arun Dravid is a brilliant example of inspired casting. The movie starts with his meditative singing and slowly we see an advanced stage of ageing leaving him dolefully inexpressive but still surprisingly perceptive and waging an uphill battle against vagaries of old age. Whole movie is Sharad waiting for his appreciation and never getting even fistful of it. All Sharad gets is blunt aptness of an opinion from the person he respects the most in the world.

Aditya Modak, thanks to being steeped in the Indian classical music scene, pulls off his part with élan but also makes the audience root for him.

The Disciple might not be as satisfying as Court but that’s more of a testament for the standards that Tamhane has set with his debut.

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