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Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple comes boldly billed as the first Indian film to play in Venice competition since Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding won the Golden Lion in 2001, just before the Twin Towers fell. That’s a long time for a nation’s film-makers to sit on the sidelines, left out in the cold – assuming they ever saw it that way. Possibly they did not. The Disciple, for one, is about the virtues and pitfalls of steering one’s own course. Its hero is embarked on a long, lonely quest. The bright lights and red carpets hold little attraction for him.
You don’t have to be familiar with the intricacies of Hindustani music to appreciate Tamhane’s heartfelt, melancholy drama although I’d hazard a guess that it helps. That’s because its protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), is steeped in its traditions, living and breathing its phrasing, picking his way through an apprenticeship that’s been known to last a lifetime. He longs to prove himself as an Indian classical vocalist but can’t meet the bills or pay the rent. His mother despairs of him ever settling down with a wife. “I do nothing but practise,” he laments.
Sharad has a white-haired mentor, Guruji (Arun Dravid), who sickens and falters as the decades slip by. But he is also inspired by the teachings of the mythic Maai, a woman who was reputedly the finest singer of all, but whose sole recording output was a series of lectures she delivered in 1972. “If you want to learn my music, you must forget about the audience and other such notions,” Maai advises in voiceover as Sharad steers his moped through the darkened streets of Mumbai, a placid young samurai, on the road to a glory that only he might recognise.
Sharad might prefer to exist in splendid isolation. Fortunately, Tamhane’s film is intent on throwing him up against the modern world. Distractions abound. There’s porn on the internet and talent shows on TV and few people have the time or inclination to stop and hear Sharad’s singing. When he makes the decision to donate Maai’s recordings to a university archive, he is met with little more than polite bemusement. Small wonder that the man eventually comes to question the worth of what he’s doing. Could it be that his calling is a spiritual Ponzi scheme; a means of ennobling drudgery and desperation; the tyrant that keeps him from leading a complete, happy life? The music is gorgeous, but the cost is too high.
I wish that I enjoyed The Disciple as much as I admired it. The film is a labour of love insofar as it feels overthought and overburdened, with all the rough edges planed down. Sharad is a stoic, Job-like presence, occasionally buckling under the strain but soldiering on with a pained half-smile. Would it be too crass to long for a moment where he truly reveals what is driving him on? Where he shows us why he loves this mysterious, ancient music, or perhaps even why he hates it? One thing about ascetics, they keep an audience at arm’s length.
Source: The Guardian
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