Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi film, “The Disciple,” is an honest portrayal of an aspiring musician’s journey, with all the travails, trials and tribulations that it entails. Through Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), Tamhane shows how the struggle to find one’s voice and identity musically is truly an arduous one, replete with self-doubt, humiliation and disappointment.
Sharad spends a lot of time practicing and perfecting the nuances of Indian classical music. Very rarely, he sets off on his bike, headphones in his ears, cruising along the dark roads of Mumbai, listening to a revered music guru impart advice on the art of honing classical music.
That’s the voice of Maai or Sindhubai Jadhav, a stalwart in the genre, who taught Sharad’s guru Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid) and was revered by his father (Kiran Yadnyopavit). Through flashbacks, we learn that Sharad’s father wanted to be a singer at one point, but ended up being a devoted music scholar. He trained his son to follow his dream, instead.
Maai’s meditative voice almost puts Sharad in a trance as he listens to her stress on the importance of a detached lifestyle, away from the glitz and glamor of fame and fortune. “Saints and ascetics have attained this music after thousands of years of rigorous spiritual pursuit,” she begins. “It cannot be learnt so easily. There’s a reason Indian classical music is considered an Eternal Quest. And to embark on that quest, you’ll have to surrender and sacrifice. If you want to earn money, raise a family, then perform love songs or film songs. [But] if you want to walk this path, learn to be lonely and hungry.” (Maai’s voice is provided by the director Sumitra Bhave, who died on April 19 at 72.)
These are the lessons that shape Sharad and form the crux of “The Disciple,” the coming-of-age story of devotion, dedication and disenchantment. The film follows Sharad, as he devotes his life to becoming an Indian classical music vocalist, diligently following the traditions and discipline of the old masters, his guru and his father. But as years go by, Sharad has to change course. The film traces Sharad’s dichotomy between the demands of adulthood and the teachings of Maai which espouse surrender and sacrifice, renunciation of practical or commercial success, even of having a family.
“The Disciple” starts in 2006, when Sharad is one of only a handful of students of an elderly musician and singer, Sharad’s guru, Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Arun Dravid). Sharad reveres Guruji. He learns music from him and also looks after him, bathing him, making tea, giving medicines, pressing his legs and applying ointment, accompanying him to the doctor and even, sometimes paying the bill. Guruji also taught Sharad’s late father, who failed to become a professional musician and was embittered by his failure. With this facet of Sharad’s relationship with Guruji, Tamhane highlights the guru-shishya parampara — observed even today to some extent in the teaching of classical Indian music.
Sharad practices obsessively, consuming his life in the pursuit of art. He lives meagerly with his grandmother (Neela Khedkar), refuses to speak with his mother, who nags him about getting on with his life, and holds a poorly paying but engaging job with a music producer who reissues under-appreciated classical musicians of the past. Maai’s tapes, eight-hours of recordings of her private lectures his father taped in 1972, are Sharad’s only prized possessions.
Despite following Maai’s instructions to the T, Sharad isn’t making great progress, he is filled with self doubt. There is that time when he struggles to get variations during a practice session with Guruji, or the time when he is stopped from singing during a performance by Guruji. In one of the conservations, Guruji chides Sharad for always being in a hurry to excel. Instead, like Maai, Guruji reminds Sharad of the importance of regular riyaaz, or practice, adding that until he was 40, he didn’t do anything but polish his singing skills.
Midway through the film, the action leaps forward a dozen years. We see changes in Sharad, and the way he approaches music. His old 2G phone has been replaced by a smart one, and his youthful boyish looks are now that of a middle-aged man,with an expanding waistline and a moustache. Sharad now teaches music in a school. He even makes a website, in an attempt to make his work more marketable. And he is still as devoted to the ailing Guruji, and is still having difficulty making his way as a performer.
He meets a skeptical music writer who busts several myths about the great singers he admires, Sharad listens closely but becomes angry. He also Sharad attempts to donate the tapes of Maai’s recording and a librarian has no idea who she is, needing him to spell out her name.
As he is transitioning, we see him intently watching the rise of a young pop star on India’s version of “American Idol.” He never expresses what he feels with her drastic changes in style and genre of music as well as her dramatic rise. Maybe he is questioning his approach to his art, his refusal to adapt and change.
The pace of the film is slow, but Tamhane’s approach to the subject is probingly creative. especially the movie’s onscreen performances which are filmed with a rapt fervor, including the intense and complex interplay between Guruji and his accompanying musicians. The screen-play, lighting, cinematography, detailing of the scenes, editing, costumes, make up, music adn sound design, enhance the performances. They aid in portraying the complexities Sharad deal with.
But where Tamhane excels the most is his ability to extract an extraordinary performance from a non-actor like Aditya Modak as Sharad. Modak, an accomplished singer, made his acting debut with “The Disciple.” Like his debut film “Court,” this film too has an understated elegance, a zen-like minimalism with a distilled style of storytelling. All in all, “The Disciple” offers a refreshingly soothing and meaning experience while highlighting a genre that’s not much exposed in modern films. “The Disciple” is currently streaming on Netflix.