The Disciple Movie Review: A stunning meditation on artistic despair
Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature boasts his unique visual style and uncommon depth
In Court, first-time director Chaitanya Tamhane painted a stark (and savagely funny) portrait of the Indian judicial system. The 2015 Marathi-language film relied on a simple juxtaposition: the gap between exalted legal ideals and their actual process. A similar tug-of-war invigorates The Disciple, Chaitanya’s second feature, about a young classical singer named Sharad (Aditya Modak). In the opening scene, the camera closes in on a musical performance in a large hall. We’re introduced to Sharad’s father, a veteran vocalist and teacher, and then, as the frame tightens up, to Sharad himself.
Cast: Aditya Modak, Dr. Arun Dravid
Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Streaming on: Netflix
A second-generation classical performer in Mumbai, Sharad has grown—though hardly blossomed—in his father’s shadow. There are tender flashbacks into their past, which reveal a broken family and a missed childhood. Sharad bears this resentment quietly but firmly—it doesn’t take long for him to say, “Don’t compare me with my father. If I fail, I won’t go around blaming the world.” Still, he cares for him all the same, tending to his failing health and backing him up with a tampura.
The film, which is also written and edited by Chaitanya, follows Sharad’s disillusionment over a long period of time, from youth to middle age. These sections are tied together by a motif: Sharad listening to lecture recordings of Maai, a reclusive, enigmatic maestro who trained his father. In her peaceful voice, she reveals to him the core tenets of classical singing—sacrifice, asceticism, pain. Sharad clings to this bushido-like code, but can barely keep up. Like any ordinary artist, he frets about the niceties of performance, experiences jealousy and hurt, and, in one telling scene, even lies to a friend.
Just what, exactly, is he missing out? Time and again, Sharad is accused of impatience, of a certain ‘restlessness’ in his mind. This puts him at odds with Chaitanya’s filmmaking. The director is all poise and perseverance, furnishing each scene with an uncommon depth. He has a distinct way of filming wide spaces—usually with static shots from a distance (the cinematography is by Michał Sobociński). His use of editing is near imperceptible but can deal great damage. It’s hard not to crack up when Sharad watches, on TV, a woman at a reality show contest. She ends up wooing the judges, and the scene abruptly cuts to Sharad in a hall.
Like Court, The Disciple immerses us in its chosen milieu. Chaitanya’s research is exhaustive—a simple conversation on a train yields a reference to the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata. Sharad’s father is played by Dr Arun Dravid, a real-life classical singer, expert and lecturer. There’s much devotion to the greats, but their life isn’t rarefied. We see an ancient art form eroding away—its practitioners dependent on a few wealthy sponsors here and there. But The Disciple isn’t a sympathetic film; it points up the stubbornness and absurdity of these artists as much as the commercialism surrounding them.
Debutant Aditya is a classical singer too, though a more accomplished one than Sharad. Winningly, he brings a striking authenticity to the part. There’s a memorable scene where a music critic spills scandalous gossip about the masters of the craft. Sharad listens intently, even egging the man on to speak. But then a line is crossed, and Sharad assaults him with a glass of water. It’s a funnily harrowing scene, all his years of indoctrination and rage coming out in a splash.
The Disciple stands out in a small crowd of recent Indian films about music. Too many of them come ringed with hope, the artist always parlaying his creative frustrations into something worthwhile. Sharad’s journey follows a simple track: he goes from hapless student to quiet custodian. Only once does he break character, slipping away to play cricket at a field. It feels like a mercy.