September 23, 2023

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“The Disciple”: An Indian Classical Musician’s Conflicted Coming of Age

By happy coincidence, a sudden spate of wonderful Indian movies has become available online—two from New Directors/New Films, the classic “Duvidha” and the new film “Pebbles,” and, now on Netflix (by way of the New York Film Festival), another new movie, “The Disciple,” the second feature by Chaitanya Tamhane, who draws inspiration from classic themes for a film of modern ideas. Set in Tamhane’s home town of Mumbai, it is an artistic coming-of-age story—a tale of the gap between the demands of adulthood and the slow gestation of a musical career under the guidance of a venerable master of the art. Though Tamhane films the story with a profound—and profoundly realized—reverence for the art in question, Hindustani classical music, his view of the musician’s profession and vocation packs a gimlet-eyed skepticism of grand philosophical scope.

“The Disciple” starts in 2006, when the titular protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), who’s twenty-four, is one of only a handful of students of an elderly musician and singer, Guruji (Arun Dravid), and the most fanatically devoted of them. Sharad’s studies with Guruji cross the usual boundaries of an academic relationship: the young man bathes and applies ointment to his teacher’s body, accompanies him to the doctor and even, when necessary, pays his bill. That’s because Sharad’s relationship to Guruji goes beyond that of the other students: Guruji also taught Sharad’s late father (seen, in flashbacks, and played by Kiran Yadnyopavit), who failed to become a professional musician and was embittered by his failure. When he was alive, he gave Sharad music lessons—persistently but gently—and took him far and wide, even as a child, to hear master classical musicians perform. There’s an exquisite flashback to such a concert, held on a riverbank at 5 A.M., that suffuses the screen with the event’s momentous spirituality. (A side note: Indian classical music is also the main subject of a classic film that’s now available to stream on the Criterion Channel, Amazon, and elsewhere—Satyajit Ray’s 1958 drama “The Music Room,” which is, like “The Disciple,” a story of fanatical devotion to music and a treasure trove of great performances that are thrillingly filmed.)

Sharad practices obsessively (shades of “Whiplash” but with far deeper insights), consuming his life in his pursuit of art. He lives meagrely with his grandmother (Neela Khedkar), refuses to speak with his mother (who pressures him to get on with his life), and holds a poorly paying but engaging job with a music producer who reissues underappreciated classical musicians of the past. Yet Sharad isn’t making great progress: the movie begins with an extended, extraordinary performance by Guruji, accompanied by his students, two of whom meet his stringent standards, while Sharad gets calmly but clearly criticized by him on the stage. Sharad’s fanatical devotion to musical study is also guided by a second teacher. He, his father, and Guruji were all devotees of a woman called Maai, a legendary musician whose private lectures his father taped, in 1972. These eight hours of recordings are Sharad’s prized, jealously held possessions, and he listens to them on headphones while motorcycling through the city, imbibing Maai’s demanding ideas and her hot-forged aphorisms. (Her voice is provided by the director Sumitra Bhave, who died on April 19th, at the age of seventy-eight.)

Maai teaches “surrender and sacrifice,” renunciation of practical or commercial success, even of having a family. She teaches her student to “learn to be lonely and hungry,” and describes her form of music, called Khayal, as a severe test of character. She gives little thought to technique, which she calls “merely a medium to express your inner life.” What she demands, instead, is “the strength to look inwards with unflinching honesty. . . . The truth is often ugly. Unless this awareness seeps into your music,” she adds—and Sharad stops the tape at this critical, terrifying point. Meanwhile, Guruji counsels Sharad to have patience—when Guruji was Maai’s student, he merely practiced until the age of forty. The drama puts these conflicting teachings to the test: midway through the film, the action leaps forward a dozen years. The thirty-six-year-old Sharad, now a part-time music teacher, is still devoted to the ailing and enfeebled Guruji, and is still having difficulty making his way as a performer. For Sharad, the kind of unflinching honesty that Maai demands means a confrontation with his own ugly truth—with his failures.

I won’t dare spoil the outcome of Sharad’s self-reckoning. The movie’s majestic paradox is that Tamhane’s attention to the young protagonist’s story (thinned by a few dramatic shortcuts) is matched—indeed, bested—in his inspired, rapturous portrayal of the two older artists and their creative inspiration and spiritual authority. The spare yet spacious scenes of Sharad riding his motorcycle, as the soundtrack is filled with Maai’s echoing voice, have a power that goes beyond Sharad’s own concentration; they seem to map her grand ideals onto the city and the world at large. Even more than a drama, “The Disciple” offers a probing—and ultimately scathing—vision of artistic psychology and aesthetic philosophy, of the self-cultivation and formation of artists, while offering an ecstatic view of art itself. I’ve long believed that music is the closest art to cinema, and that the filming of musical performance, in a way that transcends mere audiovisual recording, is a uniquely severe touchstone of directorial artistry. Tamhane’s approach to the subject is passionately, probingly creative. He finds a distinctive cinematic music in his filming of the movie’s onscreen performances. Guruji’s performances, in particular, are filmed with a rapt fervor, in tense angles that reveal both his own exalted intensity and the complex interplay between him and his accompanying musicians. In its depiction of Guruji’s mastery, “The Disciple” conjures the wonders and the mysteries of a life that is itself a work of art.