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Pushing Forward: On the Power of The Disciple

How long will he have to keep going? And how long can he actually do that? Indian film “The Disciple,” which was released on Netflix a few months ago without much fanfare, meditatively observes its musician hero’s seemingly endless artistic struggle. With a vivid and realistic presentation of the small world of Indian classical music, the movie subtly and sensitively conveys his growing doubt and insecurity, and we come to understand and empathize with him, all while he comes to terms what he’s gained and what he’s lost.

During the first half of the movie, which is set Mumbai, India in 2006, we see the daily life of a young Indian classical music vocalist named Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak). He has been under the tutelage of a respected guru for several years, and, like any other young and scrappy musician, he is hungry for more recognition, strenuously pushing himself toward excellence. Besides practicing a lot, he sometimes participates in a group meditation session for his spiritual stability and purity, which may enhance his talent and performance. To remind him of artistic ideal and integrity he also often listens to the old recording of the private lecture given by a legendary vocalist, who was incidentally his guru’s mentor.

Alas, these things still seem to be out of Sharad’s reach, no matter how much he tries. While sharply pointing out his pupil’s errors from time to time, Sharad’s guru later tells him that he should have more patience in addition to being willing to hone his skill and talent more for many following years, but Sharad cannot help but feel pressured and frustrated at times. When he participates in a local competition, he gives a fairly good performance in front of the judges, but he is not quite good enough, and that is another blow to his aspiration.

When he is not practicing, Sharad works at a small company, where he handles a bunch of recordings from obscure vocalists, but this job does not look that promising or rewarding at all. At a big convention for Indian classic music performance, he and his colleague try to sell the CD copies of their collected recordings, but nobody is interested in their products. Not so pleased with how his musical field has been less popular and more obscure, he bitterly talks about the current trend in Indian classical music when he later has a dinner with his colleague.

And we also observe how lonely and barren Sharad’s private life has been. He lives in Grandmother’s house, and his grandmother cares about him a lot, but he is mostly occupied with his practices. His mother, who frequently calls from his hometown, is always concerned about whether he will finally marry and then settle, so he does not want to call her that often. As a 38-year-old single guy whose mother often complains about when I or my younger brother will marry and then settle, I know and understand his feeling too well.  

Via several flashback scenes going back to his childhood years, the movie delves into the origin of Sharad’s artistic passion. His father was also a vocalist just like him, and, even after he chose an alternative instead of pursuing his vocalist career, he often instilled his learning and disciplines into young Sharad. During one flashback scene, we see his father having a TV interview in front of a group of audiences including young Sharad, and the movie deliberately modifies visual quality and screen ratio for emphasizing Sharad’s present perspective on that moment. Time has passed a lot since that moment, and his father, who died some years ago, is not remembered that much now just like many other musicians in their field. Nevertheless, Sharad still cherishes that moment despite regarding his father as a failure.

In the meantime, Sharad and his career are not going anywhere. He seems to gain more confidence as he advances a bit more, reflected in one celebratory performance for his guru, but time continues to pass without much change. Looking older and more jaded in his changed appearance more than 10 years later, he now teaches young students at a school while also trying to promote his career via his own website, but he is still stuck in his shabby status, remaining unsure and insecure about his artistic potential. When he sees one of his peers getting a small but considerable career success, he cannot help but become envious, and then there is a little amusing moment when he briefly considers giving an angry reply to one sarcastic comment to one of his recent YouTube clips (A lesson: Do not give a damn about those thoughtless online comments).

Sharad keeps trying to stick to his artistic ideal and integrity, but then he is reminded again and again of how hard and difficult that really is for an obscure musician like him. He tries to follow the philosophy and principles imparted to him by his guru and his guru’s mentor, but he comes to make a rather cruel decision when one of his promising students seeks from him a permission to perform something different in public. Watching his guru becoming more fragile without much financial support, he becomes more concerned about his future, and the movie later reveals that he already had doubt even during his younger years because of what he heard from a prominent local music critic. 

Quietly going through small ups and downs with its hero, “The Disciple” gradually immerses us into his environment, and director/writer/editor Chaitanya Tamhane and his crew did a fabulous job of filling the screen with considerable verisimilitude. Thanks to cinematographer Michał Sobociński, we get a number of terrific shots to be admired for thoughtful camera movement and precise scene composition, and I particularly like a recurring long-take shot showing Sharad riding a motorcycle at night. As the recorded words of that legendary vocalist are spoken on the soundtrack, everything literally feels slow and calm around Sharad, and we come to sense more of what he is trying so hard every day.

Furthermore, the movie pays a lot of attention to presenting its musical elements as realistically as possible, and we are accordingly served with several interesting performance scenes. Although these scenes are mostly plain on the surface, Sobociński’s camera subtly and patiently captures mood and details on the screen while austerely sticking to its static positions, and these memorable scenes come to function as the fascinating glimpses into a cultural world alien to most of us. Not so surprisingly, Aditya Modak and several other cast members in the film are singers/musicians, and they surely bring authenticity to these scenes.

On the whole, “The Disciple” is an extraordinary piece of work which deserves more attention for its impressive technical aspects, and Tamhane, who previously made a feature film debut with “Court” (2014), surely shows here that he is a talented filmmaker to watch. The calm and immersive qualities of his film, which is mainly represented by patient long-take shots throughout the movie, frequently took me back to Alfonso Cuarón’s great film “Roma” (2018), and I was not so surprised to learn later that Cuarón helped Tamhane a lot during the pre-production and production of the film, in addition to serving as one of its executive producers.

By the way, as watching the haunting last shot of the film, I came to reflect a bit on my current status as an amateur movie reviewer. To be frank with you, Sharad’s doubt and frustration resonated with me a lot because I also have had a fair share of doubt and frustration as driving myself toward writing better movie reviews and essays, and I am wondering again whether all the efforts I have put in my movie reviews and essays during last 10 years will actually lead up to anything in the end.

I will probably never be as prominent as I innocently wished in my early years of reviewing movies, but some of the best moments in my inconsequential life came from writing about movies. Maybe these lovely moments are all there is for my ongoing pursuit of good and interesting movies out there, but I do not regret anything at all, and I am ready to keep going while looking forward to encountering something as awesome as “The Disciple.”  

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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