The Disciple transports us into the world Indian classical music, through the eyes of the troubled musician, into the dynamic of teacher-and-disciple, a recurring theme in cinema.
The now iconic 2014 film Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, with its hard-hitting views of highs and lows, triumphs and failures, depicts the extents to which a teacher could go to get the best out of his student. In Whiplash, the pain, anger and frustration of Andrew (the student) is realistic and gruesome. Bullied and abused by his teacher Fletcher, Andrew seeks perfectionism and approval, seemingly at the cost of his equilibrium.
While it is hard not to draw parallels to Whiplash, The Disciple is a subtle and nuanced take on this relationship, set in the context of Indian classical music — a world driven by surrender, devotion and faith, where the goal is something spiritually greater than mere technical mastery.
In the tradition of Indian classical music, success is supposedly measured neither by winning competitions nor becoming famous on reality TV. Such things are inconsequential and fake in the eyes of the protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar, played by classical musician-turned actor Aditya Modak. (Modak is also a qualified chartered accountant.)
Unlike his peers, Nerulkar seeks to discover that elusive space between talent and mastery, where time stands still, even if for a moment.
There’s an expression to describe that elusive something — “moksha”. Moksha is the ultimate purpose of human life, that goes beyond the material and emotional aspects of this world and seeks to bring the participant — whether artiste or spectator — to a state of joy and happiness.
Art is one route to achieve moksha. But at what cost? This conflict — at the core of the film — lies in the choices between staying true to the art or bending to the material practicalities of life.
Director Chaitanya Tamahane — an avant-garde filmmaker by the norms of Indian cinema — enjoys portraying complex and nuanced subjects in cinema. Tamhane has no formal training in filmmaking. He was interested in theatre and wanted to be an actor. But life had other plans for him and Tamahane directed his first play when he was 21. Soon after, Tamhane’s debut film Court won an award for Best Film in the Orizzonti section at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.
Later, Tamhane participated in the Rolex Mentor-Protégé Arts Initiative programme. Here, he came under the mentorship of Alfonso Cuarón, known for Roma.
Impressed by Tamhane, Cuarón came on board as an executive producer for his protégé’s ambitious project — The Disciple. Cuarón believes that Tamhane is “one of the most important new voices of contemporary cinema”.
And justifiably, seeing that the film became the first Indian movie in 20 years to be featured in the main competition of European film festivals (after Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001).
The Disciple went on to win Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 and has received international acclaim from audiences worldwide — for good reason and in no small measure because of Tamahane’s ability to translate the idiom across cultural expressions. And equally because of lead actor Aditya Modak’s ability to capture the character of Sharad Nerulkar, who is a perfect disciple on the surface, devoted to the art, his guru and the parampara (tradition specific to the canon).
In the compelling storyline, frequent flashbacks show us how Nerulkar’s father — a trained, amateur musician — fosters his interest in classical music. He gives his son Sharad his first lessons in music and takes him to concerts.
It is from his late father’s stash that Sharad finds bootleg recordings of the lectures of the celebrated but reticent singer Maai who describes that learning to sing Hindustani music is deep penance and sacrifice. Maai believed that Indian classical music is an external quest, not meant for the weak of heart. To pursue a career in classical music is to learn to get used to disappointment, hunger and loneliness. Surrender and sacrifice – to the art, to the guru and parampara were the only path to realisation. Material success, she said, could come from pursuing pop and film music.
The film has several scenes of Nerulkar listening to Maai’s stream of consciousness, as he bikes through the streets of Mumbai — ambient silence and Maai’s voice serving as the drone of a tambura that emphasises the raga.
Maai is the thread that holds the film together, her croaking voice drowning out Sharad’s feelings of despair and hopelessness.
These recordings, the memories of his father and devotion to art, help him deal with his frustrations of being witness to the commercialisation of music through reality shows, of critics questioning his musical legacy, and of the pressures of practical life — read, getting a job, getting married.
Nerulkar’s principal frustration lies in the fact that while he is willing to work very hard at music, he simply does not have “it”. His peers become musicians and scholars of repute, while he continues to struggle in his own bubble. His quest to remain a purist in a fast-changing world is a recurring theme in the film and shapes his journey.
Yet, Nerulkar, as The Disciple, accepts that the end of this mystical journey lay a pot of gold and thus begins his journey of three decades; each decade presenting him with obstacles that bring him closer to an existential crisis.
Sharad’s frustration and anger at himself is evident throughout the film. His guru advises him to walk this path without questioning the outcome. But as time goes by, his demons leave him disillusioned with life.
The Disciple has many layers to it — nuanced, idealistic and almost romantic in its approach. It is a hard look at the realities and struggles of being an Indian classical musician in the 21st century. The fear of becoming dated and losing out in the race of life. The need to be practical in a world, where values and ethics are not black and white, but grey and murky. The need for recognition and success in a space driven by the patronage of sponsors, audience, critics.
And most of all the pain when that voice in your head screams, “Maybe, you never had it in you”.
Shruti Mahadevan is a Bangalore-based writer. She is also a trained Bharatanatyam dancer who says she feels the artiste’s pain articulated in the movie.
- (The Disciple is streaming on Netflix. Whiplash is streaming on Amazon Prime.)