“Once an idea has been fully expressed, don’t stretch it further. You are falling short in your riyaaz.”
“But all I’m doing is practising for hours and hours…”
“Your perspective is lacking. It’s all scattered. It’s all jumbled up. The music has no life in it.”
This is a brief dialogue between a teacher and his pupil. Gyana (knowledge) given to a shishya (disciple) seeking his guru’s verdict on his independent live performance. “उमज कमी पडत्ये” (Lacking perspective)… a very profound statement in the film… a distinguishing current underlying all those yearning for excellence and nuances, as opposed to those who don’t.
The fault line is so stark and universal that it has attracted world audiences to Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple despite their unfamiliarity with the artistic grandeur of Hindustani classical music or the guru-shishya parampara. A brilliant piece of art, devoid of any flashy attempt to impress, the film just stays deeply within you with all its subtleties, nuances and dissonance.
There is an inherent restiveness in the film which affects the audience. There is an underlying, constant duel – between the values of the present and the construct of a moral code within a traditional setting, between the said-unsaid, visible-invisible. This duel is so intense that the intermittent sound of the tanpura in the background serves as catharsis. Subtly, almost imperceptibly, The Disciple unfolds the antithetical subcultures that co-exist in pursuing a purist ideal, and, in the context of this film, the arduous path of Indian classical music. The contradictions of contemporary life come out very aptly in juxtaposition with the protagonist’s pristine aspirations.
The Disciple unfurls like a vilambit khyal set in Brahminical patriarchy. Both, the guru and the shishya are male and Brahmin. If any one of them was a non-Brahmin and/or a woman, the whole dynamics would have changed. But as a conscious choice, Tamhane has identified the surnames of both the characters – Nerulkar and Pradhan – and thus the upper caste setting. Without any direct reference to caste, the director has emphasized, through these names, the ubiquitous dominance of the upper caste in the field of khayal gayaki. Just the way he portrayed the ethos of Dalit life without ever uttering the word in his earlier film, Court.
As the film starts with a static long shot of a concert and the rendition of Raga Jaunpuri in the background, glimpses of legends like Kishori Amonkar, Amir Khan, Kumar Gandharva start resonating. All through the film, a collage of images keeps emerging in the subconscious where Annapurna Devi, Mogubai Kurdikar, Raghunandan Panshikar, Kalapini Komakali, Uday Bhavalkar and Mukul Shivputra stand apart from the popular idols of reality shows and social media influencers. These names evoke different perspectives and ways of nurturing artistic pursuits.
Sharad Nerulkar, the protagonist, listens to traditional purist thoughts at night to keep his aspirations alive, leaving behind the flash of reality, fame, money, and success. Tamhane gives us some exquisite, surreal moments using slow-motion technique when Sharad rides his motorcycle on the empty streets of Mumbai at night listening to the lectures of Maai, his guru’s guru. The technique metaphorically captures the difference in pace between his existential reality and his saintly dreams. Though we are watching Sharad’s story, the contrast between elitism and egalitarianism, scholarship and imbecility, depth and superfluousness, artistic and consumerist pursuits constantly lingers in our mind.
The film is a portrait of a disciple yearning for validation and appreciation from his aging guru. Looking after the guru, bathing him, paying his bills – Sharad carries out these tasks with almost a naïve bhakti or blind faith towards his teacher’s accomplishments. But Sharad’s blindfold doesn’t allow him to realize the in-built oppressive power structure, the politics of pedagogy. Chaitanya Tamhane deals with untouched territory without taking any obvious position. Nonetheless, the satirical treatment conveys Sharad’s disdain very effectively.
Because music is seen as an esoteric pursuit leading towards transcendental spirituality, the inequality between guru and shishya is never seen as oppressive. If the guru’s approval of a shishya’s musical notes is the target, the shishya will always remain gullible. When the guru’s scholarship is never assessed objectively, thinking of the possibility of his bias or manipulation will be sinful. Hindustani classical music is such an abstract art that the idea of perfection is necessarily a subjective and equally vulnerable concept. The shishya builds up a mythic image of his guru based on anecdotes and subjectivity. But in reality, when a shishya starts drawing attention to his art, the guru’s conniving side can emerge. Decades of sadhana, which is actually unpaid labour, may end in him cutting off patrons for the shishya’s art, or even ousting him from the gharana. Such impious actions are given impunity, but the frames of Sharad masturbating somehow irk our artistic aesthetics.
Sharad doesn’t get to experience the ugly face of the parampara because his guru is a nice man. Also Sharad himself is aware of his own limitations. He accepts the fact that he lags behind compared to his gurubhagini who tours the world and has many fans on YouTube. His personal dilemmas and frustration never impede his efforts and optimism. He accepts the job of a music teacher and has occasional solo performances. Yet, he doesn’t tolerate his guru’s humiliation, or the rude mother of his pupil. He donates Maai’s lectures with the hope that it will be accessible to all in the open-source world. We like this non-superhero protagonist because he is alive through such benevolent deeds. These subtle nuances are marvelously performed by Aditya Modak, almost in a Kaurismakian deadpan style. When a wandering minstrel singing Gorakhnath’s bhajan in a sonorous voice passes by our failed aspirant on a train displaying a talent that our protagonist doesn’t have, the irony of his lonely trajectory sinks in.
The guru performed by Arun Dravid is very befitting and natural. The fact that both actors are trained classical singers would have eased the Herculean task of directing them – especially to plot Sharad’s evolution as a singer. Maai’s voiceover offers a contrasting dimension to our tainted contemporary values. The musical ambience created by Aneesh Pradhan is especially commendable. The technical aspects of the film are so well tuned that the film will be remembered as a ‘Note Extraordinaire’. The writer-director, cast and technicians deserve our praise. That Tamhane chose to make the film in a regional language is praiseworthy too.
As I finished writing this review, a friend who has been managing classical music concerts, called up to vent. “What is the purpose of this film?” he asked. “What is the director saying? It was so scattered… Instead, watch Shankarabharanam! There was a clear message.”
I disagree completely. The strength of The Disciple lies in not being simplistic. Subtlety is its virtue. Its poetic abstraction is extraordinary. Shankarabharanam was poetic but poetry comes in all shapes and sizes. Are Elliot or Neruda at the same level as Rupi Kaur or Carol Ann Duffy? There is a scene in The Disciple where a person visits Sharad’s music stall. Browsing through the titles, he comments, ‘I have never heard of any of those artistes.’ Sharad’s unsaid words – ‘They are better’ – echo in our minds louder than his “But they are equally good…”
Something is really wrong with us when we make unwarranted comparisons – wittingly, unwittingly or algorithmically. It was heartbreaking that as soon as The Disciple got over, Netflix recommended ‘Bombay Begums’ as the next show to watch. This irony is killing.
Sandhya Gokhale is the co-director of Bhinna Shadja, a documentary on Gansaraswati Kishori Amonkar.