‘The Disciple’ Review: An Immersive Spiritual Experience | NYFF 2020

     October 14, 2020

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Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple exists at the delicate cross-section between visual and oral tradition, exploring Hindustani Classical music — an eight-hundred-year-old art form — through the ever-changing lens of the modern world. At its center is Sharad Nerulkar, played by first-time actor Aditya Modak, who turns in a restrained and nuanced performance as the film’s eponymous protégé. It’s a story split between three pivotal decades of evolving Indian ephemera as Sharad searches for meaning within the rigorous boundaries of his craft, a form of religious artistry that demands total devotion. Across the film’s 128-minute runtime, Tamhane slowly and meticulously opens the floodgates between the spiritual and physical worlds as technology becomes more intrusive, allowing for a jarring (and at times necessary) cross-pollination of sights, sounds and ideas.

The Marathi and Hindi-language film, executive produced by Alfonso Cuarón, is a political Rubik’s cube akin to Court (2015), Tamhane’s masterful debut. It has the same myriad strengths and the same occasional weaknesses, but what separates The Disciple from its predecessor is Tamhane’s aesthetic approach. On the surface, both films have the same observant quality. They capture their characters at a physical remove, most often in tranquil wide and medium shots that allow us to absorb the spaces they inhabit. Though where Court unpacked the heady rigmarole of Indian judiciary by lingering on procedure, The Disciple swaps out the rote for the ethereal, embodying tenets of Classical music itself, as if in mathematical navigation of some spiritual realm.

the-disciple-posterThe film’s very fabric feels mystical and metaphysical. Its music reverberates, as if off the walls of a holy site. Watching it feels like floating in some unseen, unspoken realm each time Sharad takes a step forward in his search (though we’re soon yanked back to reality with each step back). The plot no doubt facilitates this oscillation, veering between brief moments of musical transcendence, and Sharad’s insecurity about his place in a changing world. The former feels deeply spiritual; the latter, achingly human. For the most part, it follows Sharad’s private lessons in the early/mid-2000s with his esteemed teacher — his Guruji — played by renowned real-world Classical singer Dr. Arun Dravid. The film also briefly flashes back to Sharad’s childhood in the 1980s, shortly before India’s economic liberalization and its opening up to western culture.

The focus of these flashbacks is Sharad’s late father (Kiran Yadnyopavit), who pours his devotion to Classical music into books on the subject — specifically, books about his mysterious musical mentor, the late Maai, who also mentored Sharad’s Guruji. As it happens, Sharad’s father was also in possession of a series of tapes which housed the only known recordings of Maai: her lectures on music and spirituality. However, no known recordings of her performances seem to exist. The closest Sharad can come to learning music from her is by learning from those she taught.

As a lonely twenty-something living with his ajji (or grandmother) in Mumbai, Sharad’s work and hobbies blend together. At night, he plays the sitar during his Guruji’s performances, gazing upon him eagerly as if being treated to ancient secrets. When the film opens, the camera begins at a distance and pushes toward Guruji performing on stage, but rather than landing on him, it pushes past him and arrives at Sharad, a secondary character living in the shadow of holy figures. At his poorly paying day job, Sharad restores and digitizes the tapes of the reclusive Maai left to him by his father, immortalizing his mentor’s mentor through technological snippets, as if to conjure a ghost from a machine.

Sharad’s physical struggles are about hitting the right notes and phrases when he sings, which Tamhane captures in the form of intimate lessons and performances as part of the guru-shishya parampara, or master-disciple succession. Sharad’s spiritual struggles, however, tend to rear their head during his downtime, when he tries to get away from it all. He rides his bike through Mumbai’s streets with Maai’s recordings playing through his earphones, searching for some nugget of wisdom that might soothe his self-doubts and his feelings of mediocrity. In these moments, time itself begins to slow, as the music shifts in diegesis. With no visible instruments on-screen, the haunting echoes of sitars emerge as if from within Sharad’s own subconscious. A soundtrack to his very soul. As he glides across dimly lit roads and bridges, Maai sternly guides him down a narrow ascetic path, dismissing more free-form, mass-appeal bhajans (or songs of devotion) while espousing the rigid virtues of Indian Classical, as if it were a structured staircase to finding God.

Maai, voiced by Sumitra Bhaave, feels like a fictional amalgam of two of Dr. Dravid’s real-life associates: his serene and personable mentor Gana-Tapaswini Mogubai Kurdikar, who he referred to as “Maai,” and Kurdikar’s daughter Kishori Amonkar, a lonelier, more temperamental figure in the Classical world. The fictitious Maai, while Guruji’s mentor in the film, appears to take after Amonkar’s personality more than her mother’s, though the character’s narrative function is less that of a real person, and more of a spiritual and political lightning rod for Sharad. As a disembodied, ghostly voice revered by Guruji (and by Sharad’s father), Maai is a cipher for glimpsing unattainable knowledge. But as a woman whose secret, often salacious history begins to come to light, she becomes a double-edged sword for Sharad, a young man who wields her knowledge as a weapon against “lesser” art, but a man whose own sexual repression clashes with the ascetic veneer of his chosen form.

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Image via NYFF

The film cuts suddenly between scenes of Sharad publicly singing, or meditating, or praying — there’s little difference for him — to scenes of him masturbating behind closed doors, with the porn he’s watching in full view of the audience, forcing us into unnerving complicity with his secret desires. In most Indian films (at least, those made for theatrical release), scenes like these would be implicit at best, owing both to censorship and to an increasingly volatile cultural conservatism. But Tamhane, by luring us into a comforting trance of traditional instruments and mild-mannered social gatherings, provides a jolt to the system with this lurid juxtaposition, as if to force the association between the spiritual and sexual out in the open.

This isn’t the only association the film foists upon us. After a brief time-jump to modern day, we’re re-introduced to a more learned, more composed Sharad midway through the film. But we’re also grounded in a political reality, one which seemed to escape even his peripheral vision when he was younger and focused wholly on his craft. Stories of lynchings and religious violence in Narendra Modi’s India abound. They’re inescapable now, and even though Sharad doesn’t address this stark new dimension, it hangs over each performance like an ever-darkening cloud. His art form, after all, is overtly and historically Hindu, and whether he likes it or not, it exists within the broader political context of a Hindu-supremacist state.

The spectre of Islamophobia creeps further into Sharad’s purview, as he learns more about the history of the music he’s devoted his life to, and more importantly, the history of the people he reveres. As if to hold a mirror to the current fraught political moment, he resists accepting their shortcomings, unable to reconcile the ugliness of that which he holds dear — to the point of lashing out.

Although, one thing the film fails to contextualize, which feels like an equally vital dimension, is the spectre of caste. It’s a social structure that has also led to increasing violence in modern India. Religious hierarchies and related practices are often gate-kept by caste hegemony, a tenet of that aforementioned Hindu supremacy. With an ancient artform taught through oral teachings rather than text, limited access to knowledge isn’t a bug, but a feature. As with Tamhane’s previous film, Court — which some have criticized for its failures to frame caste oppression within the broader scope of Indian law — The Disciple seems unconcerned with this intrinsic aspect of Indian art and politics. It’s a sore blind-spot in a work so otherwise adept at capturing how external forces intersect with art and spirituality, and a failing that in turn calls into question the film’s aesthetic focus.

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Image via NYFF

From end to end, the way Tamnahne captures characters like Sharad and his Guruji during their performances speaks to a fixation with idolatry. As they perform — cross-legged, often on raised platforms, and in the hopes of coming one step closer to the divine — they’re framed with an eye towards their relationship to their audience, who gaze upon them as if they were statues of Hindu Gods seated at the head of a temple. The way the camera creeps towards them, on a slowly-moving dolly, feels like walking through the doors of an ornate mandir and approaching the holy with utmost reverence, and utmost caution, though never quite reaching it. The characters may be seated still, but we, the viewers, are constantly thrust into motion in order to capture their spiritual headspace. Performance venues are filled with devotees, but in private moments when Sharad feels lost and uncertain, he sits alone on the ground outside. We creep towards him from behind pillars and other obscuring structures, as if in secret attempt to gaze upon some hidden holiness, the way Sharad himself struggles to gaze upon the bigger picture of the universe.

It’s a potent visual motif, leaving us perpetually untethered from the physical. The camera floats towards and around these seated figures, each fixated with the spiritual, and who in turn become our fixations. Although, one can’t help but wonder if this visual framing is at least slightly undone by the film’s aforementioned thematic misstep. What does it mean for these “upper-caste” characters to be seen, or to see themselves, becoming one with the divine, without the narrative framing of what that self-proclaimed divinity might mean in the broader political context?

However, despite this specific failing, Tamhane’s other ruminations are expressed with utmost clarity. He captures not only the sexual, but the technological as unavoidable facets of the spiritual in the modern world. Each one is as inseparable from the creation (and propagation) of art as the last. As music and technology evolve around Sharad — from the re-emergence of East-West fusion as a novelty, to social media becoming a new water-cooler for the arts — he’s forced to confront the reality that his passion for ancient traditions is no longer one that most people share. Classical training, it would seem, has become a platform for Pop, something Sharad sees as bastardized, sexualized, and impure. Before long, his crowds begin to wane.

The Disciple, however, neither wholly laments nor wholly celebrates this evolution. For most of the film, Sharad ends up silently resigned to whichever way the wind blows (despite pushing back in the few ways he knows how). But the blinders with which he’s learned to seek meaning end up insufficient, in a world where being more connected also means being challenged at every turn. The question of who this art (or any art) is really for, and who should have access to it, ends up rearing its head throughout the story. Is it for the audience? For God? For the self? And who is its keeper? Everyone around Sharad seems to have a different answer, from his peers to his mentors to his family, and the lines between each answer seem to grow more blurry once people look to Sharad for guidance.

Though while Sharad may not have a concrete answer, Tamhane seems to hint at how one might arrive at a solution when the very nature of art, and one’s relationship to it, seems like a gnawing problem. By holding back and staying at arm’s length from the characters, the camera adds devastating emphasis in the rare moments it employs the close-up.

It does so only a small handful of times. Once, in a moment when Sharad seems truly tempted by the erotic musical evolutions he sees as perverse. And once, when he’s faced with the idea of death, and the impermanence of the self. Given how far the film otherwise hangs back, these punctuated close-ups feel enormous and discomforting, as if the camera is beckoning Sharad to come to a more complete understanding of the human experience — of the spiritual, of the physical, and of why art endures in the first place.

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