REEL Review – The Disciple (2020)

Director: Chaitanya Tamhane | 2h 7mins | Drama | Language: Marathi

Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) spends his life dedicated to the art and culture of Classical Indian music under the wing of his Guru and the teachings of his Father. When he struggles to find excellence and fame, Sharad questions whether or not his dedication has been worthwhile.

Chaitanya Tamhane’s newest film is aptly named the The Disciple. It’s about the dedication required to learn, and master, the complexity of the India’s Classical music. But it’s requirements are more than just being a student, you need sacrifice and spiritual devotion in order to unlock the ‘mysteries’ of the music. This is how Tamhane presents it anyway, in a similar vein to how Chazelle showed a rigorous dedication to Jazz in Whiplash (2014) but instead of blood, sweat and tears The Disciple opts for a methodical pace as it’s main character finds himself at a mental crossroads.

Throughout the film we hear tapes of different lectures given by a legendary Guru named Maai, often heard as Sharad rides his moped through the humid streets of Mumbai in slow-motion, they act as our guide to the music’s spirituality. Maai describes a life of commitment to taking an “Eternal Quest”, one that requires you to discard any hope for family or marriage, something that Sharad blindly follows in the first portions of the movie.

The first half of the film feels like a love letter to the music, often spending 4-5 minutes simply listening to masters and disciples practice and perform. Even when the film isn’t making us listen we get to watch conversation after conversation about the specifics and delicacies of becoming great. While interesting and sometimes hypnotic, it does make the film’s pace excruciatingly slow, testing your ability to dedicate yourself to the films offerings. But, everything we see in the first half of the movie is a wonderful transition into the important dilemma Sharad faces later on in life.

There is no crime in allowing your character to have a singular moment of realisation, instead the film doesn’t give us that luxury and would rather tell us in quiet contemplation.

After 30 years or so of pure devotion, we see Sharad start to question his own belief in the process. We see shreds of diversion from Sharad, often finding solace in Pornography in lieu of a wife, as well as indulging in conversation with sceptics and critics. He even watches a talent show that begins helps to push the dilemma he’s facing. Why should someone become famous in the space of a second when even after 30 years of devote practice he is barely even recognised? It’s incredibly subtle, but the biggest mistake the film makes is making it too subtle. There is no crime in allowing your character to have a singular moment of realisation, instead the film doesn’t give us that luxury and would rather tell us in quiet contemplation.

First and foremost, though, this a film that’s strength lies in it’s score. Not just in quality of music but rather how it’s used to narratively. The camera barely moves other than the odd track or pan, it would rather let the vibrational tones of the music fill the screen and absorb on it’s own. It’s not just in the constant practices and performances though, Sharad is often followed by the echoes of the geniuses he can never reach. In his down time he isalways learning from them, and it helps to inform us the difference between the greats and the mediocre.

Often films are crucified for their lack of subtlety, but Tamhane’s film is the victim of the opposite. Having said that, though, The Disciple’s display of it’s own story is beautifully scored and shot with simplicity, a slow-burner that at it’s best is a hypnotic odyssey through a demanding culture you may not have heard of before.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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