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The Disciple movie review: A demanding drama from master-in-the-making Chaitanya Tamhane

The Disciple movie review: Director Chaitanya Tamhane's new film, out on Netflix, is a demanding drama about obsession; another major step in the creative evolution of one of India's most promising young filmmakers.
UPDATED ON MAY 01, 2021 04:59 PM IST
The Disciple movie review: Aditya Modak as Sharad Nerulkar, and Arun Dravid, as Guruji, in a still from Chaitanya Tamhane's new film.

The music in The Disciple brings to mind that scene from La La Land, in which Ryan Gosling’s Seb, a lifelong devotee, explains jazz to Emma Stone’s Mia, who thinks of it as elevator music. “It’s not relaxing,” Seb says, on the verge of losing it. “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s new, every time. It’s very, very exciting.”

There are several scenes in The Disciple, director Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature film, in which discerning crowds gather to watch a performance of Indian classical music. They bob their heads gently, their bodies swaying in near-unison to the ‘raagas’. I have read foreign journalists who watched the film at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals describe the music as ‘soothing’, mistaking it, perhaps like Mia, for what you’d hear in the lobby of a Taj, or at Saravana Bhawan.

Watch The Disciple trailer here

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It’s likely that you’re reminded of Damien Chazelle’s films while watching this one, obsessed as it is with obsession. But thematically and tonally, Tamhane’s follow-up to his modern masterpiece Court has more in common with Japanese cinema.

“Till the age of 40, we didn’t think of anything but practice,” the aspiring 24-year-old musician Sharad Nerulkar’s ‘guruji’ tells him in one scene, after Sharad displays a hint of impatience. Guruji isn’t a hothead like JK Simmons’ instructor from Chazelle’s Whiplash, but more reserved, like chef Jiro Ono, whose relationship with his son was documented so thoughtfully in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Guruji’s expectations of Sharad aren’t dissimilar to what the greatest sushi chefs demand of their apprentices — years of dedication perfecting knife work and rice-making, before they can even attempt crafting the actual dish.

Sharad reminded me of director Goro Miyazaki, a man who reluctantly followed in his illustrious father’s footsteps, but learned some time later that he simply wasn’t cut out for it. Like Studio Ghibli’s internal affairs, succession plays a key role in The Disciple as well. Sharad grew up hearing his father wax lyrical about the legendary Maai, an idealistic singer who refused to perform for crowds, or allow her music to be recorded. One of Maai’s disciples was Sharad’s own Guruji; this isn’t conveyed in as many words, but it’s almost as if Sharad believes that he belongs to some sort of holy bloodline.

Conquering the world of classical music isn’t merely his artistic ambition, but a spiritual quest. He is a samurai, a monk who goes on nighttime bike rides in Mumbai, almost as an act of meditation. On his rides, filmed entirely in slow-motion, he listens to rare recordings of Maai’s lectures, in which she speaks about resisting temptation — Bollywood is but a block away — and the importance of remaining ‘lonely and hungry’.

Later, when he is getting pictures taken for his website, the photographer asks him to loosen up a little. “Smile, you enjoy singing, don’t you?” he asks. The look on Sharad’s face suggests that the photographer might as well have asked for his mother’s hand in marriage; it’s been a while since he ‘enjoyed’ doing anything.

A still from Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple.

As languidly paced as it is, there is a claustrophobic quality to The Disciple that is hard to ignore. Like its protagonist, the film never takes it easy; Sharad has no friends to speak of, he has no hobbies, no real job, and no interests beyond singing. There’s a sense that he’s continuing down this demanding path because of an escalation in commitment — he has invested far too much energy into this to turn back around.

Tamhane’s spare style betrays the influence of his own ‘guru’, executive producer Alfonso Cuaron. But while Cuaron in his most recent film, Roma, was able to conjure up tremendously moving moments, Tamhane maintains the emotionally distant, observational approach that made Court such a classic. It doesn’t work quite as well this time around, because unlike Court, this film is a character study.

Also read: Roma movie review: Alfonso Cuaron has made one of the best films of the decade; a cinematic game-changer. 5 stars

But Tamhane’s gaze is unflinching. We never leave Sharad’s side, across multiple timelines. We are with him when he is at his most vulnerable; as he pleasures himself in his grandmother’s house, when he is told off by Guruji during a live performance, and when the facade of brilliance that he had erected around his heroes (and, symbolically, his country) comes crashing down.

The Disciple is a demanding film, but one can't help but feel that it is another creative leap for a new master-in-the-making.

The Disciple

Director - Chaitanya Tamhane

Cast - Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid

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