What makes Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple an unprecedented onscreen study of Indian classical music

·6-min read

While there seems to be a renewal of interest in the story of the classical musician in popular entertainment offerings in recent times, they are at best mawkish to say the least. The depiction of the musician and the music is pre-determined in such cases. The musician is shown as a citadel of perfection, unwaveringly resolute in his practice, and the plot revolves around a disciple's fastidious attempts to learn music at any cost. Simplistic at best, this is a time tested Hindi film formula.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam features a Salman Khan who travels from remote Italy to the deserts of Rajasthan searching for a guru. The scenes showcasing his training and practice sessions with his guru are a display of poor histrionics, stuff that popular Hindi cinema is made of. Mahesh Dattani's Morning Raga has some fine performances but music is just a prop in that film. While there is a long tradition of engaging with the story of the classical musician since Baiju Bawra, none treads where Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple has reached through his sheer ingenious storytelling and sincere investigation into the life of an aspiring musician and his music.

Tamhane could achieve this because The Disciple is not an 'industry' film so to speak. The industry dictates standards, a formula which is then followed through repetition. It would be criminal to compare Bandish Bandits with The Disciple but I am citing the former as an example of a recently popular web show which confirms to the standards of the 'industry.' Sophomoric at best, the depiction of classical music and musicians is laugh worthy in Bandish Bandits. In fact, it does more damage than awaken interest. The pursuit of classical music is subjected to gross oversimplification in the series.

Tamhane's The Disciple is unparalleled for several reasons. The lead actors in the film are practicing musicians themselves. Both Aditya Modak and Dr Arun Dravid, who play the disciple and the guru respectively, have also rendered all the compositions in the film. The accompanying musicians featured in the film are also noted exponents. Tamhane's choices make the entire premise more credible as opposed to actors with no training or little exposure to music trying to play a classical musician in films, which has been the norm so far. Their mannerisms are over the top, with little or no connection between their expressions and gestures and the music they are singing on screen. Even a redoubtable thespian like Naseeruddin Shah failed to convince in Bandish Bandits.

The bigger problem is many of these films approach classical music or the musician as sacred €" invariably rendering the portrayal hackneyed.

Tamhane's film brings the focus back on the mundane and the routine. Sharad Nerulkar is an ordinary middle-class youth aspiring to be a vocalist. This choice in itself is remarkable. Do you have to be extraordinary to pursue classical music? Are all its exponents extraordinary? If not, then why can the ordinary disciple not be at the core of a film? This is the biggest myth that the film shatters. This element does not turn the film into a story of extraordinary achievement or the underdog's overnight transition to greatness. In that sense, the film makes the viewer work a little harder, without the props of binaries.

Nerulkar's guru, Vinayak Pradhan, is a little known musician who is believed to be the custodian of great music. However, he is not much of a performing artist. In the film, he is only seen performing small, intimate house concerts for a select few. Is that only because of his own high standards or is there much more than what meets the eye? These are the questions that Tamhane's film plants in our mind.

Pradhan's teacher, referred to as Maai, in the film is another purported genius shrouded in mystery. We also realise that her genius and mystique is perhaps the creation of her students and followers. Maai did not believe in performing for an audience or record her music. While it is entirely the right of the musician to choose her path, do we have to necessarily confuse austerity with genius? I cannot think of any other film that has raised these questions.

Rajiv Menon's Sarvam Thaala Mayam highlights caste oppression in music training and education. After a series of hardships, the central character in this film is accepted as a disciple by a virtuoso musician. While it highlights caste-based discrimination, it fails to identify the same as a systemic crisis, and the treatment overall is melodramatic, soap opera-like. Caste was more pronounced in Tamhane's debut film Court but the world of Hindustani Khayal music that The Disciple captures is overwhelmingly upper caste, wedded to woolly notions of purity.

(Also read: Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple is an elitist take on the market for classical music)

Tamhane's eye for detail calls for further praise to the extent that he gets even the seating at concerts, the 'halls,' the flower decorations, and the carpet used to cover the concert platform pitch perfect. In comparison, attempts like Bandish Bandits create an imagined performance space totally disconnected with the real. It goes without saying that Tamhane must have visited numerous such concerts while preparing for the film. Besides, he invited Aneesh Pradhan to design the music. There is no background score other than strains of the tanpura or Maai's running commentary.

The Disciple treats Hindustani classical music as the central character, and everything else revolves around it.

Tamhane also throws in a mob lynching reference during the film. This makes it even more contextual. Classical music, after all, is anchored in a social context. Does the context impact the music or is it just immune from such happenings? Does the musician ever think about these occurrences? The film is a gentle provocation in numerous ways.

The first dialogue you hear in the film goes, "Let's not spend too much." A sentiment tailor-made to understand what Nerulkar's guru, and Maai before him, envisioned for their music: a life of making do with less. Nerulkar struggles to find synergy between what he is taught and the world around him. It is a constant inner struggle. The agonising journey of the disciple manoeuvring his way through tradition to find his place in the world is the most important contribution of The Disciple. While we may know this, we have never seen it before. Definitely not the way Tamhane shows in his film.

The Disciple is streaming on Netflix India.

Kunal Ray is a culture critic. He teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.

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