Review: ‘The Disciple’ (2020) by Chaitanya Tamhane – London Film Festival

by Ruairí McCann

Early in writer-director Chaitanye Tamhane’s second feature, The Disciple, the mastery of Hindustani classical music is described as an ‘eternal quest’, which will require ‘sacrifice and no surrender’. Later, its polar opposite is expressed, encouraging practitioners to take a step back and look at what they do within its historical context.

Both are just two points in a constellation, generated by a film preoccupied with artistry – its mythos and hard truths. The chosen prism is the contemporary world of Hindustani classical music, otherwise known as North Indian classical music. This is a centuries old form, led by a vocalist-composer-conductor who sings a raga – a semi-improvised melodic mode – atop a repetitive, rhythmic structure, played by a small symphony of instrumentalists using some combination of sitar, harmonium and tabla.

Sharad (Aditya Modak) is a Mumbai-based sitar player and an aspiring vocalist. We first see him at 24, honing his art by practicing at home, performing in competitions and backing his guruji, for whom he is also caretaker. Both his guruji (Arun Dravid) and his late father (Kiran Yadnyopavit), who appears via carefully woven-in flashbacks, trained under Maai (Sumitra Bhave), an ascetic singer who in death has left behind no recordings of her art, or her person, save a few lectures which Sharad imbibes religiously. It is one thing to preach the philosophy found on her tapes – an art life that is all-encompassing and uncompromised – but it is another to actually live it, for apart from the trouble of having to earn and save money, working at a small record label and boarding with his grandmother instead of his master, Sharad has reached an impasse. His ambition is chafing against the limits of  both his own abilities and an art which exists not in a vacuum but, like everything else, in a world susceptible to the whims of finance and fashion. 

The film’s two hours are neatly bifurcated, between Sharad as a young man and twelve years later, where he has gained a paunch and a moustache but little in the way of renown or prosperity. But along and across that very cleanly cut divide, the movie moves at a slow building pace to an eddying and circuitous structure through which Tamhane methodically – but never too transparently – reveals and develops ideas about the philosophy and business of art, and therefore the context of Sharad’s blinkered, slightly tortured perspective. Embodied well by Moyak, who, like much of the cast, is by training a musician, not an actor—a choice made for obvious reasons, since the actors need to convincingly perform complex music, but as evidenced by his first feature, the legal drama Court (2014), it is Tamhane’s preference to use non or first time actors.

Moyak plays him in a minimally naturalistic style, with a constant tension and Raskolnikov-lite arrogance that are perfectly attuned to the twinned inflated sense of self and insecurity of youth and, later, of someone who fears they have passed it. These flaws, alongside his less-than-heavenly pastimes of smoking and jerking furiously to porn, contrast with the transmundane teachings of both Maai and his guruji. And yet they too are further complicated and fleshed out beyond their personal legendarium. As the former exists only through that immortal part: her reputation – clearly self-curated – and the latter’s prowess has come with some unavoidably material side effects, such as poor health and poverty. A flashback where Sharad’s father and his friends discuss a well-known singer’s tendency to mask his fallow periods – which afflict all artists – with the mystique of his genius, adds a valent to and reflects both compassionately, and ironically, on Sharad’s decision to beat himself up, striving to achieve a single-minded conception of greatness.

This is a state of mind expressed not only through performance but cinematography. Working with Director of Photography Michal Sobocinski, Tamhane has opted for the cinemascope frame—perfect for the semi-circle configuration of the troupes and the slightly elongated concert halls or wide-open spaces in which they often perform, and long takes. He overrides the nebulousness that can come with this canvas and style through a deliberate traversal between inchoate and clearly staged compositions alongside the use of penetrating zooms and dolly forwards. Sharad is often the object of these centrings or effacements, and so depending on what side of the line – between his own, unsure, perspective and an objective one – a shot finds itself in, he can stick out in a crowd or else be lost in one.

A similar ethos governs the filming of the arrangements themselves, none of which are shown from beginning to end. Instead, they unfurl at a length that gives a good enough taste of their mesmerizing beauty. Often a performance is initially shot like it is intended to be seen, from the front, taking in all its players, with the instrumentalists in the wings and vocalist in the centre, like a godhead. Yet the camera starts to drift, to emphasize certain players, and the relationship between two or more. As the narrative moves along, tracking how the proverbial sausage is made and Sharad’s faith is wavering, the camera gets in from behind or the side, past the pretence and into the guts of a performance. 

There is not only an astute awareness to the making of the music, but the structures and archetypes that support and infest it. In the film’s first half, it gathers a strong and detailed impression of the artform’s milieu and how it is somewhat tied to the passing fancy of a subscribed audience. This births a tension, between the art’s transcendent aims and its patronage by a non-committal bourgeoise, which Sharad voices when he complains about concert organizers mixing classical and popular music in order to attract faddish upper middle class audiences, and then encounters himself when he attempts to sell his boss’ wares to members of that same audience. Devotional music, not classical, is the newest trend, so they are not interested.

Yet true to the film’s inquisitive nature, there is never a strict dichotomy between the good and the bad, the principled and the commercial. For instance, there is a sub-plot in the second half, where Sharad gets hooked on watching a particular contestant’s appearances on a music talent show, a la The Voice or American Idol. It would have been easy to present Sharad’s interest as an act of abjection, that he is just hate-watching an extremely watered down and flashy version of his practice. Yet it is clear that both Sharad and Tamhane find the contestant they’ve latched onto to be truly talented, and Tamhane does not shirk from showing how her talent is not allowed to exist and flourish on its own terms. Instead it is shaped and sold by a commercial logic that believes the vagaries and contradictions of someone’s life and aspirations can be encapsulated by a single montage sequence. That the mysteries of art can be sung by just one single, pranging note. Luckily, there is a filmmaker like Tamhane, who can beg to differ and do so beautifully.

Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Fim Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine and Little White Lies.

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