What is the story about?
The film charts the journey of Sharad Nerulkar, a budding proponent of classical music who wants to follow in the footsteps of his guru, Pt. Vinayak Pradhan, and become an accomplished Pandit himself. However, in his mad quest for perfection, he undertakes a solitude-filled journey through heartbreak, financial hardships and a search for adulation.
Can the pursuit of perfection ever bring true happiness? This is the central question at the heart of director Chaitanya Tamhane's second feature, after the thought-provoking Court, and as the story goes, it is a tricky one. At the beginning of the film, we see Sharad's eyes transfixed on his Guru as he tries to practice. At 24, Sharad is raring to go in the world of Hindustani classical music. For him, mastering the Alwar tradition of songs is not just a passion, but also a way to escape the shadows of his father. The long hours he puts into his practice cannot discount the storms and discontent raging within him: the "failure" of his father, Mukund, in doing anything substantial in the music world; his inability to find happiness in the world outside his music; his lack of a social (and even romantic) life; and his constant self-doubt. Sharad's life is a bundle of contradictions, and he gets lost in a maze of his own doubts, with the occasional outburst. How he charts his journey from the volatility of his emotions in his 20s to a happier life, albeit with slight compromises, is what The Disciple is all about.
However, you would be mistaken for thinking this film is only about Sharad. It's also about Vinayak, the guru who Sharad is devoted to, and who later gets dependent on him as he becomes frail in his dying days. Vinayak is someone who dotes on Sharad and considers him the perfect disciple, and later realizes that he may have taught Sharad to imitate his style carefully, instead of letting Sharad figure out his own path. The voice of Maai, lodged in tapes that Sharad keeps digitizing, seem to him like meditative podcasts which he uses for motivating himself, only to reveal sinister and disgusting undertones later. It's in moments like this where Tamhane's screenplay deftly explores the schisms and battles of ego in the closeted world of Hindustani classical music. The pursuit of excellence is often a recipe for exploitation, and there's a superb scene which illustrates the fact that the so-called proponents of classical music are human at the end of the day, with their own faults and secrets. It also poses the question: does making a new rendition of an established musical tradition kill the original creation, or does it give it a new lease of life? The questions posed by this film are far-reaching, making it a cerebral masterpiece.
Aditya Modak is a knockout as Sharad. He plays two distinct versions of the same character in two different timelines, and the manner in which he changes his body language in both halves is something to watch out for. Dr. Arun Dravid lends poise and dignity as Pt. Vinayak Pradhan. The late Sumitra Bhave, who passed away recently, makes a special appearance in the film by lending her voice to the unseen character of Sindhubai Jadhav or Maai, whose sagacious advice in her tapes have sinister undertones. Deepika Bhide Bhagwat leaves an impression as Sneha.
Music & Other Departments
Sushant Sawant's art direction is fantastic. Michal Sobocinski's frames are eye-filling, and there's calmness in each one of them, even when there's discord in the narrative.
Since the lead actors are trained exponents of classical music in real life, the sequences where their characters sing ragas are a treat to watch.
The slow, languid pacing of the film might not work with certain audiences.
Did I enjoy it?
Do I recommend it?
Absolutely. This is a must-watch, and another reminder of Tamhane's creative genius.