Readers Write In #307: THE DISCIPLE – Chaitanya Tamhane

Posted on November 30, 2020

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(by Suresh S)

There are two measures by which Chaitanya Tamhane‘s new film The Disciple may be measured. First, as a follow-up to Court, his seminal exploration of the machinery of the Indian legal system. Court was the antithesis of all Indian legal dramas that had appeared till then (and even most foreign films I have seen), not concerned with generating courtroom fireworks, but realistically depicting an ongoing proceeding in context of the greater institution which carries on in its phlegmatic fashion regardless of how the wheels of justice turn for any individual. The Disciple promises to bring that same kind of (pun unintended) non-judgemental fly-on-the-wall observation in its journey through the world of Indian classical music.

The second measure is how The Disciple compares to other indigenous classical music based films (note  here that the following remarks are from the impoverished understanding of a layman). While India has a rich heritage of classical music (distinguished broadly into the northern ‘Hindustani‘ and southern ‘Carnatic‘ styles) and music has always been an integral part of our mainstream cinema, there have not been many serious integrations of the twain. This has at least in part to do with the sophisticated improvisatory nature of hardcore Indian classical music (as opposed to its offshoots in the more popular ‘light’ music). Most people (and I freely include myself in this list) would not have the discernment to evaluate a pure classical performance or distinguish between different interpretations of a raag.

In the 50’s and 60’s it was primarily mythologicals and period pictures that used heavy classical scores. The 80’s saw a brief revival of classical music in modern-era set southern ventures like Shankarabharanam (whose success led to its remake in Hindi as Sur Sangam, and set the general ball rolling), Sagara Sangamam, Sindhu Bhairavi etc, and some Malayalam films in the 90s (Bharatham, His Highness Abdullah) boasted raag-based soundtracks. These were of the populist variety and injected large swathes of family-friendly melodrama into the scripts or presented musical prowess mainly in the vein of technical dexterity (or lung power). The Court maker has obviously higher aspirations. If The Disciple takes inspiration, it is probably from the more exalted docu-drama explorations of classical music by Kumar Shahani (Khayal Gatha), Mani Kaul (Dhrupad, Siddheshwari) and Amol Palekar (Bhinna Shadja).

Unlike Court‘s multi-threaded God’s Eye narrative, The Disciple is in most part a single protagonist’s story. Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) is a passionate student of Hindustani classical music, his life divided between tutelage, practice, amateur performance and the service of his music guru. Large swathes of the film are devoted to the study and performance of Hindustani classical music in a serious and credible vein. Sharad’s commitment to music includes having only bare means of financial support (he and a colleague transfer recordings of less-heard artists and sell CD’s at concert venues, where they are often turned down by patrons who only want lighter music or stick to the known names). We see the origins of Sharad’s consuming interest in his enthusiast father, who in a loving but demanding manner makes the child Sharad devote all leisure time to the study of music. Then there is Guruji (Dr. Arun Dravid, in real life a disciple of classical exponent Kishori Amonkar, and an interpreter of her musical philosophy), and Maai. The near-mythical Maai who exists only as a series of tape recordings Sharad uses as guiding light (Sumitra Bhave in evocative voiceover) represents an idealistic vision of the supreme artist, one whose devotion to the art transcends an audience in search of divine communion.

Unlike in mainstream cinema, our protagonist is not presented as a tanpura-wielding knight, a haloed genius-in-making. Sharad has talent and works hard, he is devoted and gets frustrated with his inadequacies….but is all that enough? In a lovely understated manner, the film eventually asks if Sharad has it in him to eventually become the artist he wants to be – whether it was really worth forsaking those childhood games, holding off on conventional ties and companionship to pursue a holy grail of achievement, scorning the appeal of more accessible musical forms? Under Tamhane’s direction, the film avoids dogmatism in these questions. It does not judge Sharad, nor the other characters. Apart from (and this may be my imagination) a vaguely disapproving look at an Indian Idol contestant going from a classical performance in the heats to romantic, then sultry film numbers as she progresses through the competition, there is no tone-deaf denunciation of popular musical form.

The Disciple lacks the impact of Court, where the impartial tenor of observation only strengthened its portrayal of a visceral social concern. The relatively obscure field of view here makes for a more remote experience (possibly dearer to an audience with special interest), but it is a courageous attempt to depict an existential crisis in an empathetic manner and a worthwhile watching experience from a  film-maker with undeniable talent; Tamhane certainly has no need to question his chosen vocation.