By Raviakash Deu
Though the words of classical Indian songs may have been composed at any date, the musical themes or ‘raags’ communicated orally from master-to-disciple are essentially ancient – often why we refer to it as ‘canonical music’. It has usually existed only under cultivated patronage, and its own exclusive society, whereby the patron appoints musicians for his own pleasure, and the pleasure of his aristocratic friends. But drastic changes in economic and social conditions in India for over half a century have given rise to new conditions and contexts that challenge this system. Seemingly ‘less affected’ has been the expression of the genre as ‘temple music’. Here, the musician is first-and-foremost a servant of God.
Situated in that wider world of ‘guru-shishya parampara’ or ‘lineage’, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, awarded the International Critics Prize at Venice Film Festival, falls into the second category. Presenting the still-surviving consciousness of Vedic philosophy, including all of its modern complications, the film maps the journey of the aspirant classical vocalist Sharad Nerulkar (played by Aditya Modak) who devotes himself to the instructions of his father, his guru-ji and his spiritual idol. Faithfully pursuing his dharmic dream, the story highlights the familiar struggle of “trying to make it” as a serious artist. Sharad must confront obstacles that he is told are necessarily gruelling; yet, as they chip away at his resilience, so too the original godly vision is sucked into the world of maya, or illusion.
The Music of Minimalism
This is a film both special and devastating for spiritual seekers. There is, in other words, a sad irony in diving this deeply into art and eastern wisdom and then casting it into the hot-headed hub of overcooked cinematics that is the mainstream monster of Netflix. Away from grand auditoriums, Tamhane wishes to expose the fringes of the esoteric genre and an intimate subculture in Bombay. The concerts, or exhibitions, which occur throughout the film are so beautifully minimalist in their design and organisation, they might be mistaken for group meditations, only where the mood is created by a dedicated performer as opposed to a Spotify playlist. The culture has a term for them, ‘mehfils’.
Absent any screaming mobs, the atmosphere of these micro-concerts remains piercing. For young vocalists like Sharad, who lives with his grandmother and earns little pay in his day job converting old classical records into new audio formats, the expectations of the (usually) 40 or 50 aficionados in attendance, lays a visible burden upon him. Early on, we, the less immediate audience, must navigate thoughtfully between our awe over Arun Dravid or ‘Guruji's’ outstanding vocal control, and our sympathy for his student’s nervous over-commitment, or under-commitment, to a particular raag. Sharad is yet to earn the right to experimentation, an idea that surfaces during one of several flashbacks to his childhood.
Onboard a train to Ramdass, Sharad is sleeping while his father (played by actor Kiran Yadnyopavit), himself a failed singer, enters a lively debate with friends around the Pandit they are travelling through the night to go and see: “Look, with the Maestro it’s 50-50. When he’s good he’s really good. When he’s bad, it’s really unbearable,” says the friend. “It’s 50-50 because he’s a genius. Every performance he tries something new, always experimenting. When it works, you’ve hit the jackpot,” replies Sharad’s father. Jumping forward in time – and the film does a dizzying amount of this – even at the peak of Sharad’s singing career, he still falls desperately short of any cries of ‘genius’. A withering Guruji substantiates the harsh criticism Sharad reads about himself on YouTube. It is a tragic moment but also a potent reminder of the disciple’s humility and the strength of their sacred bond. At other times, Sharad is seen massaging his master, even paying for his medical bills. Guidance and knowledge in spiritual matters is sweetly reciprocated through selfless devotion and service. The Sweet and Sour of the Sublime
But modesty isn’t always so easy, and the film excels in presenting the complex psychological issues posed by a life of asceticism. How does this marry up with a modern environment that privileges overindulgence and self-promotion over control and detachment? Until the close, Sharad struggles intensely with balancing the two. The strictness of his training, as inculcated by the never-seen mystical gurvi, ‘Maii’, requires a commitment we learn more about during the disciple’s most contemplative moments:
“Technique is merely a medium to express your inner life. Technique can be taught. Truth cannot. For that you must have the strength to look inwards with unflinching honesty.”
“Once you close your eyes and utter the first note nothing other than the Raag must be allowed to enter your mind.”
Maii’s secret recordings, passed down from father-to-son, are a source of curiosity throughout. Sharad listens to them, attempting to translate her advice of finding purity, perspective and inner truth into his own practice. Her teachings closely resemble those put forward in the Natya Shastra around 200 BCE. Written by the father of Indian and Sanskrit theatre, Bharata Muni, this theoretical treatise on the performing arts, details the process of transporting audiences into an imaginative world, leading to an enhancement of one’s essence, and the attainment of higher consciousness. Such insights, if not already profound, are buttressed here through the raspy, authoritative voice of the late Marathi filmmaker, Sumitra Bhave. Bhave’s unique expression promotes a near-hypnotic experience when paired with similarly arresting visuals: a series of slow-motion shots of Sharad riding his motorcycle along a night-lit highway, or through the oddly quiet, inner streets of Bombay.
In one sense, the movie encourages us to lose ourselves in the sublime and yet, through Sharad's real-world experience, it suggests, on the contrary, how unwise that might be. In arguably the film’s most dramatic episode, Sharad's entire value system is thrown into disarray when he meets with a renowned music commentator and historian, claiming to possess stories about ‘the real Maii’. As the disciple’s intrigue builds, the critic, played by Vidyanidhee Vanarase, at first reluctant then brutally exposes the hypocrisy of a woman who in his opinion, was less holy than ‘whoreish’. In an interview with IMDb, Tamhane recalls how the scene of Sharad with the critic was one of the most difficult to shoot given what he experiences, and the intensity of emotion that would be released from this kind of spiritual demolition.
Chasing the Spotlight
For all Maii’s talk of discipline, ultimately it serves to strain Sharad’s relationships with his family, who want more for him than a part-time job selling CD’s, and prevents him from exploring a regular social life, even into his middle age. Repressed feelings aplenty, he becomes over-reliant on smoking and finds relief shamefully, masturbating in the corner of a dark room. An Indian Idol-inspired subplot which might be accused of cheapening the rich heritage on display – perhaps that is its intention – exacerbates this, portraying the not-so-unlikely success story of a classical female singer-turned-pop star. As a purist following her ascent, it seems to make Sharad’s blood boil; however, the film saves his eruption for a later, unrelated exchange between himself and a student. Here, Tamhane climatically displays the fragility of Sharad’s ego.
At a local school in Mumbai, Sharad serves not as a maestro, but as a lowly professor amongst many. When an honest-meaning mother approaches, asking whether her son might lend his new vocal skills to a fusion performance, the two are left shocked by his haughty response. Filled with disdain for those that would corrupt the precious art-form, Sharad advises his pupil not to return to his tuition, since he appears to have settled for an ‘inferior path.’ The scene ends with the mother threatening to report Sharad to the principal for offending her son, before storming off. Meanwhile, the damaged disciple is left to reflect once more on his misfirings as a musician, and we as the audience are unsure of who to pity most.
Caught between incessant efforts to please the crowd, ironically it is Sharad who walks out of his final performance. For all his lessons on art for art’s sake – wound up in his infancy with a music-obsessed father and unfurled through Maii’s recordings – there is little to be gained from performing, indeed struggling to perform, at unknown concerts. Though they may appear romantic to you and I, for Sharad there is no love to be found here, or within himself for that matter. Instead he must settle for the purer, platonic exchanges that emerge from guru-ji’s puissance, and that live on in the public commitment he makes to preserve his legacy. In that address, Sharad finally gets his moment in the spotlight.
The film has been commended for its execution, particularly Modak’s array of heavy emotions and Tamhane’s filmmaking in capturing this. Producer Vivek Gomber praises Tamhane’s approach and direction in creating a piece where “the sound design, the feeling, the breathing, the entire effect of the film should be such that as if it’s a raaga or a concert”. And for Tamhane, the very fact that such a film exists is a success to him, regardless of its commercial trappings. What’s more, putting aside the irony of a Netflix spot, the filmmakers are happy the flick is able to find its audience: people who may resonate with Sharad’s character and his journey, be it for cultural or artistic reasons. Whilst offering a cheerless tale of failure, the biggest victory, they say, is to be able to create more works like this one.
About the author:
Raviakash - Rav for short/ease, is a full-blooded feature writer from Birmingham, UK. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature, going on to a Master's in Shakespeare Studies at King's College London. He is passionate about long-form writing across culture and the arts, with a growing interest in spirituality.