Indian film “The Disciple”, which was released on Netflix in last Friday, calmly observes its musician hero’s seemingly endless artistic struggle, and that is often quite more absorbing and sublime than you may expect. While giving us a vivid and realistic presentation of the small world of Indian classical music surrounding him and others, the movie subtly and sensitively conveys to us its hero’s growing doubt and insecurity along the story, and we come to understand and empathize with him more as noting what is lost and gained for him in the end.
During the first half of the movie, which is mainly set in 2006, we see the daily life of a young Indian classical music vocalist named Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak). He has been under the tutelage of some old guru for several years, and he is eager for more advance and recognition besides excellence, but, alas, these things still seem to be out of his reach no matter how much he tries. He surely practices a lot everyday, and he often listens to the recorded lectures of some legendary vocalist who was incidentally his guru’s mentor, but it looks like he is still far from any artistic breakthrough.
While sharply pointing out his pupil’s errors from time to time, Sharad’s guru later tells him that he should have more patience and be willing to hone his skill and talent more for many years, but Sharad cannot help but feel pressured at times. He has worked at a small company where he handles a bunch of recordings from obscure vocalists everyday, but this job does not look that promising to say the least, and his mother, who frequently calls from his hometown, is always concerned about whether he will finally marry and then settle. When he later comes to participate in a local competition, he becomes quite nervous even before attending it, but he manages to give a fairly good performance in front of the judges.
Via a number of flashback scenes, we get to know the origin of Sharad’s artistic passion. His father was also a vocalist just like him, and, even after he chose an alternative instead of pursuing his vocalist career more, he often instilled his learnings and disciples into young Sharad. During one flashback scene, we see his father having a TV interview in front of a group of audiences including young Sharad, and the movie deliberately modifies visual quality and screen ratio for emphasizing Sharad’s present perspective on that moment. Time has passed a lot since that moment, and his father is not remembered that much now just like many others in their field, but Sharad still cherishes that moment nonetheless.
However, Sharad and his career are not going anywhere as usual. Time continues to pass, but he is still stuck in his shabby status as before, and he becomes more unsure and insecure about his artistic potential. When he observes one of his peers getting some success, he cannot help but become envious, and there is a little amusing moment when he considers giving a reply to one mean comment to his recent YouTube clip.
While quietly going through small ups and downs along with its hero, the movie slowly immerses us into his environment, and director/writer/editor Chaitanya Tamhane and his crew members did a fabulous job of filling the screen with considerable verisimilitude. Thanks to cinematographer Michał Sobociński, we get a number of terrific shots to be admired for thoughtful camera movement and precise scene composition, and I particularly like a recurring long-take shot showing Sharad riding a motorcycle at night. As he listens to the recorded words of that legendary vocalist, everything feels slow and calm around him, and we come to sense more of what he is trying so hard everyday.
Furthermore, the movie pays a lot of attention to presenting its musical elements as realistically as possible, and we are accordingly served with several good performance scenes to remember. Although these scenes are mostly plain on the surface, Sobociński’s camera subtly and patiently captures mood and details on the screen, and they come to function as the fascinating glimpses into a cultural world alien to most of us. Not so surprisingly, Aditya Modak and several other cast members in the film are actually singers/musicians, and they certainly bring lots of authenticity to these performance scenes.
On the whole, “The Disciple”, which won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize and the Best Screenplay award when it was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year (It also won the Amplify Voices Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, by the way), is an extraordinary piece of work which deserves more attention for its impressive technical aspects, and Tamhane, who previously made a feature film debut with “Court” (2014), surely shows here that he is a talented filmmaker to watch. Those calm and immersive qualities of his film remind me a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s great film “Roma” (2018), and I was not so surprised to learn later that Cuarón helped Tamhane a lot during the pre-production and production of the film in addition to serving as one of its executive producers.
By the way, as watching the haunting last shot of the film, I came to reflect a bit on my current status as an amateur movie reviewer. To be frank with you, Sharad’s doubt and frustration certainly resonated with me a lot, and that made me wonder whether all the efforts I have put in my movie review blog during last 10 years will actually lead up to anything in the end. At least, I have been mostly happy to share my thoughts and feelings with you for years, and I am really grateful for that, even if I am never going to be as prominent or famous as I wish in the end.