Are geniuses born or made? One may call Sachin Tendulkar a born genius, and categorise Rahul Dravid as genius forged through intensive labour and focus. The myth around Tendulkar will make the cub batsman worship him as god. The myth around Dravid will push them to break their bodies in the hope of reaching somewhere close to god. Tendulkar’s story says greatness is out of bounds. Dravid’s story promises that greatness is possible.
It is the second kind of story that gives hope to mediocre talents like the protagonist of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple. The festival hit, now out on Netflix, is set in the world of Hindustani classical music. The setting is incidental. It just as well could have been a story of athletes, painters, or poets. Tamhane takes a scalpel to the world of Hindustani classical music just as he did with the Indian legal system in his acclaimed debut Court. This time, his investigation into his chosen subject happens through the eyes of a hero who realises with painful slowness that some people are simply not meant for greatness of any kind.
Tamhane takes a scalpel to the world of Hindustani classical music just as he did with the Indian legal system in his acclaimed debut Court.
Sharad Nerulkar, played by Aditya Modak, is a diligent student of Hindustani classical music. He was introduced to it by his father, another doomed dreamer. As an adult, Sharad is the student of a guru played by Arun Dravid. Looming over Sharad’s life is the disembodied voice of Maai (Sumitra Bhave), a spectacular genius, who trained both his father and guru.
Sharad grows up drunk in the myths of geniuses who practiced art to find a higher truth, instead of wasting their talent over commercial pursuits like public performances and concerts. The starry-eyed Sharad remains committed to his lessons, but neither is he able to please his guru with his singing nor is he winning any competition. As he motorcycles his angst out on empty roads, Maai’s recorded lectures serve as pep talk. She says music is an “eternal quest”. If Sharad was smart, he would have got the memo.
Instead, years pass, and his peers move on to great heights while he languishes in vain. Sharad gains weight, grows a moustache, and his face carries numbness and frustration instead of the anguished concentration and restlessness of his twenties. Somewhere, he always empathised with the underrated and the underdogs. In an early scene at a music concert, Sharad has set up a stall to sell recordings of the sort of undiscovered maestros he thinks he could be. A buyer comes looking for the popular names, another asks for devotional music. They walk away, uninterested in Sharad’s fanboying. Shortly after, he complains to his friend that there are no takers for the real stuff.
This pursuit for a transcendental real sucks life out of Sharad, as the world around him slowly becomes unrecognisable. While he spent his youth going through the grind, which includes looking after and taking care of his guru, he sees subpar singers become stars through the televised music competition pipeline. Back in the day, Sharad’s lessons with his guru were conducted with Spartan discipline. As a teacher, his mobile phone keeps ringing. Earlier, Sharad could never imagine leaving his guru to carve out an independent career. As a teacher, when Sharad does not take kindly to his student’s wish to join a fusion band, he is berated by the student’s mother. We are paying him, she points out, who is he to say no?
Sharad’s long drawn out realisation of turning out to be a nobody threatens to make the 127-minute film a bore. At one point, his guru critiques his singing for belabouring a musical idea after it has already been fully expressed, “or else it sounds like you are just filling up time”. The Disciple frequently feels the same. Scene after scene feels like a variation on the central idea of Sharad battling a losing war with himself.
But Tamhane, who follows the same detached and restrained filmmaking style that characterised Court, is not interested in delivering dramatic flourishes or poetic resolutions. He drops the audience in the middle of an insular subculture without fuss, and lets the camera observe with minimal movement and nearly no cuts within a scene. (Tamhane is also the editor).
He drops the audience in the middle of an insular subculture without fuss, and lets the camera observe with minimal movement and nearly no cuts within a scene.
This method, despite its shortcomings, does wonderful things. For one, it drives home the oppressive weariness of Sharad’s life. It also creates moments of hilarity, particularly, when Tamhane’s antiseptic approach is contrasted with the dynamic dramatisation of the competitive reality show that Sharad watches, confused and defeated.
Tamhane’s attention to detail is splendid. Most of his actors, including Aditya Modak and Arun Dravid, are actual Hindustani classical singers. The musical passages are designed by tabla player and music historian Aneesh Pradhan. The conversations between musicians and connoisseurs feel authentic. A scene where a group discusses a particular singer’s performance over months seems as if they are discussing a cricketer’s form in the Indian Premier League. What The Disciple does is not communicate the excitement these fans have about success stories. It is instead the rare film that looks at someone who does not even make it to the reserve bench.