When Chaitanya Tamhane’s extraordinary debut “Court” premiered in Venice’s Horizons section in 2014, it heralded the arrival of a bright talent willing to take risks with a cerebral kind of independent cinema. Graduating to competition at Venice before traveling to other top festivals, the Indian director’s second feature “The Disciple” is more ambitious in scope and also more personal, though Tamhane’s approach, abounding in establishing shots, could distance viewers intimidated by their unfamiliarity with north Indian classical music.
For those able to set aside potentially daunting feelings of ignorance, this rich, multi-layered story of a young man’s dedication to mastering the spiritual and technical elements of “raga” singing offers much to ponder on teacher-pupil relations, the nature of performance and the consuming character of an artistic calling. Alfonso Cuarón’s involvement as executive producer should also boost its profile.
Khayal is a traditional Hindustani musical form whose dedicatees spend decades in the hopes of perfecting their art. The performative, improvised nature of the singing, in which intonation and elisions vary from one recital to another, is dependent on the psychological state of the singer as well as the receptivity of the listeners, who are expected to recognize the nuances of each performance.
That can be an issue for “The Disciple,” since most cinema audiences don’t have the background to fully appreciate the qualities that distinguish one rendition from another. Even though, by the film’s pitch-perfect ending, attentive viewers may sense they’re able to generically perceive when a vocalist is transcendent versus when they’re uninspired, the lack of background means most of us will feel ill-equipped to make any kind of judgment on what is an important element of the movie’s DNA.
The story begins in 2006, when Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), 24, prepares for a “Young Performer” competition as a Khayal vocalist. His dedication to his guru (Dr. Arun Dravid) is complete — perfecting his art is an eternal quest leaving little time for anything else, to the frustration of his grandmother (Neela Khedkar). Sharad does have a job, working for Kishore (Makarand Mukund) selling rare CDs of obscure Hindustani musicians from the past, but his waking hours are mostly spent practicing or imbibing the lessons of his master, himself the former pupil of a legendary guru, Maai (Sumitra Bhave, only heard in recordings).
Sharad’s upbringing all but ensured his path in life: His father (Kiran Yadnyopavit) was also a student of Maai’s, but an uninspired one whose devotion to his teacher wasn’t enough to make him a talented performer. His son is haunted by his father’s failure and fearful that if he’s unable to fully immerse himself in not just the music but the philosophy behind it, he too will never achieve the kind of artistic enlightenment that comes from approaching perfection.
The rigor required for this kind of training is conveyed by reel-to-reel tapes Sharad’s father secretly made of Maai’s pronouncements, in which she sternly explains that Khayal music requires not simply technique but the kind of inner peace requiring a lifetime to master. The burden of her pronouncements makes Sharad more unsettled as he struggles to overcome the kind of self-doubt that infects his performances.
About halfway through the film, the story shifts to the present. Older and heavier, Sharad appears to have gained a bit more confidence but remains an inconsistent singer plagued by his inability to achieve Maai’s vaunted state of grace. Kishore sets up a meeting at a café with noted music critic Rajan Joshi (Prasad Vanarse), whose wide-ranging familiarity with the great singers of the past leaves Sharad in awe until the conceited reviewer rips Maai to shreds, claiming she was a self-righteous, elitist fraud. The scene is an emotional highlight of the film, subtly written, with Sharad’s anger mounting as this man tears down his idol: Maai’s declarations do have elements of everything Rajan Joshi claims, yet that doesn’t mean the essence of her teachings is flawed.
It’s this kind of nuanced approach that makes “The Disciple” such an engrossing experience, delicately constructing Sharad’s character in understated tones to create a complex picture of a man’s inner struggle toward the kind of artistic fulfillment few of us will ever experience. His uncompromising focus contrasts with a contestant on a reality talent show named Shaswati Bose (Kristy Banerjee), who undergoes a disheartening transformation when her look and music choices are Bollywood-ized for the big time. This is Sharad’s idea of betrayal to a calling, and he’d rather remain on the sidelines than relax his rigid principles.
As he did with “Court,” Tamhane patiently constructs his characters out of small details, relying on his audience to pick up on small changes and muted shifts of tone that signal the passage of time and Sharad’s interior journey. It’s hard to imagine the film succeeding so well without lead actor Modak’s quiet concentration (not to mention vocal skills), capturing his character’s all-consuming hunger while generally projecting a never-dull placidity. For all its specificity, grounded in Khayal music, the film’s universality lies in the way it conveys the inner struggles of a musician aware he or she may never be good enough, just like an artist, dancer or writer plagued by fears of mediocrity.
“The Disciple” is very much a Mumbai film, finding inspiration in the city’s multilayered realities and the commonality of all urban locations that offer the companionship of specialized communities while also contributing to intense feelings of marginalization and loneliness. The preponderance of establishing shots nicely captures the sense of compartmentalized spaces, from small concert halls, the openness of the city at night, and the varied living quarters spanning middle-class gentility to more spartan quarters (one senses a certain indebtedness to Ozu’s intimate setups). It’s not just the framing that’s so meticulously constructed (and Tamhane’s editing) but the color palette, which shifts to more monochrome tonalities in the second half that nicely contrast with the garish reality talent show and the more diffused light of the flashbacks with Sharad’s father.