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Chaitanya Tamhane's film on classical music's guru-shishya tradition hits the right notes

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on May 03, 2021

Steep climb: Sharad (played by Aditya Modak) struggles to follow the implied model code of conduct for a student of Hindustani classical music — an austere, uncompromising way of life   -  PICTURE COURTESY NETFLIC

Chaitanya Tamhane does a tough balancing act in ‘The Disciple’ — allowing the audience to form its own conclusions

* The protagonist Sharad Nerulkar in Chaitanya Tamhane’s second film rides around town at night while listening to lectures on music

* From the moment we meet him, it’s clear that this journey will take over his life entirely

* Tamhane had also started attending Hindustani music concerts and speaking to singers

* The Disciple is also about the world of the classical music fan, the kind of person who would travel for days to listen to that perfect khayal rendition

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The recurring bike-riding sequence in Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, a feature film set in the world of Hindustani classical music, is the kind of a framing device that in a postmodern fiction work will manifest itself as transcripts from an interrogation, or strategic bits of an intelligence briefing being leaked piecemeal. It’s both emotional barometer and stylistic signature.

The protagonist Sharad Nerulkar (debutant Aditya Modak; very impressive indeed) in the director’s second film (released on Netflix on April 30) rides around town at night (in slo-mo) while listening to lectures on music delivered by his guru’s own enigmatic teacher, Sindhubai Jadhav (Sumitra Bhave) — called Maai by both Sharad and Guruji (real-life Hindustani vocal maestro Arun Dravid). The sequences play out over slow, measured tanpura notes that evoke a ‘frozen in time’ feeling.

These audio missives are philosophical, elliptical, slowly circling towards a kind of model code of conduct for the student of Hindustani classical music — an austere, uncompromising way of life that Sharad struggles to follow. From the moment we meet him, it’s clear that this journey will take over his life entirely. What we want to know is whether it will mean something in the end, whether his music will outlast him.

“The bike riding sequences were the glue in the story. They were, as you say, narrative markers but they were also psychological markers, to tell you where Sharad is psychologically, at that point in the story. It’s like the world is passing him by but he is not distracted in the least. He’s in his own personal cocoon,” Tamhane said in a Zoom interview.

This, then, is the hook for The Disciple, Tamhane’s accomplished sophomore outing (after 2014’s much-acclaimed Court), one that marks him as one of India’s most promising film-makers. Like with Court, which was about the trial of an ageing protest singer, the dialogue is in Marathi but there are strategically placed bits in Hindi and English as well.

As he started to put the screenplay together, Tamhane mentioned, these sequences went through several iterations before they settled on the tonality he wanted. “A screenplay is very organic; it’s a living, breathing thing,” he said.

Tamhane had also, meanwhile, started attending Hindustani music concerts and speaking to singers, gathering as much background information on this world as he could. By the time he approached Vivek Gomber, who had produced and acted in Court, Tamhane was ready with the first draft of the screenplay.

“I was just excited about reading something that Chaitanya had written, to be honest,” Gomber said. “It had been 3-4 years since Court came out, and I knew that he had been exploring this world (classical music), he had been going to concerts and so on. When I first read the screenplay in late 2017, I was also reminded of Grey Elephants in Denmark, a play that we had collaborated on.”

The 2009 play Gomber was talking about was written by Tamhane at the ripe old age of 21, by the way. The title refers to the popular magician or mentalist’s trick of the same name (the one that asks you to think of a letter, than a number and then an animal belonging to the country whose name begins with that letter). Like The Disciple, the play itself was an example of the coming-of-age subgenre called Künstlerroman or the “artist’s novel”. It charted the life choices of an idealistic magician (Digvijay Savant) as his career ebbed and flowed across successive decades.

Something similar is afoot in The Disciple, as we see Sharad’s faith in the Hindustani music system, as well as his mentors Guruji and Maai, ebb and flow. Acknowledging these broad similarities, Tamhane mentioned that the story could have worked even with a different kind of artist or craftsperson at its heart — it was just the trappings and the rigidity of this particular world that fascinated him.

“I was interested in the way this world (Hindustani classical music) had a very specific set of rules, and you couldn’t question anything. And it couldn’t exist in any other way apart from this guru-shishya tradition. I had problems with these limitations and you see some of those questions in the film. Hindustani classical music has many parallels with ascetic traditions. For Sharad’s journey, there are certain ascetic-like traditions he is expected to follow, and then there are certain ambitions that he has of his own, and the two are frequently at odds with one another,” he said.

This clash is depicted, most notably, by some uncomfortable, brutally honest scenes where we see Sharad watching pornography in a darkened room and masturbating—according to Guruji, the true student of Hindustani music does not even think about worldly trappings like marriage until he’s at least 40 years old.

Sharad’s own doubts and fears aside, The Disciple is also about the world of the classical music fan, the kind of person who would travel for days to listen to that perfect khayal rendition. In fact one of the most memorable scenes in the film is a flashback from Sharad’s childhood. His father, a true connoisseur of Hindustani music, is taking young Sharad on an overnight train to listen to Guruji singing at dawn, at a rare outdoor concert for the reclusive singer. The banter between Sharad’s father and his friends tells the audience much about a fan’s emotional stake in this world. While Sharad’s father is okay with the mercurial nature of Guruji’s onstage performances (“It’s a sign of genius,” he says), his friends feel that artists such as Guruji (when they’re good, they’re excellent but when they’re bad they’re horrid) end up costing audience members time and money. It’s hinted that these friends aren’t as interested in the music as Sharad’s father is; they exchange stories about how alcohol boosts his performance, even during concerts-at-dawn like the one they’re headed to.

“There are two kinds of Hindustani classical music fans,” Tamhane said. “One is the kind who’s all about the music itself and nothing else. The other kind are fans who’re more interested in the stories around the music and the musicians, the qissa. For them the qissa is the most interesting thing in the world.”

I can’t finish this article without pointing out that a pair of mini-scenes in The Disciple’s second half, not more than a minute of screen time put together, fooled me fair and square. Sharad is watching a musical talent hunt show on TV, resembling Indian Idol, Fame Gurukul or one of the dozens like it. Leslie Lewis and Meiyang Chang (the actor who shot to fame during Indian Idol 3 in 2007) are praising a young Bengali woman who’s just wowed them with a Hindustani-styled performance. From Jhargram, she is shy, unsure of herself — it’s the kind of rags-to-riches story that reality shows depict in an over-the-top manner. Sharad is palpably jealous; the audience does not need a word out of his mouth to understand this.

I honestly thought the makers of the film had just chosen this clip among the hundreds of hours of these shows available on YouTube. As it turns out, Lewis, Chang and everything else in these shots are entirely of Tamhane’s making—they constructed the set, the fake audience, the whole shebang. It is as convincing a simulacrum as I’ve ever come across in an Indian film.

As the producer of the film, Gomber had a tough call to make. He said: “It costs a lot of money to put together a scene like that, and then after everything’s done you see that sequence in the film for like, two minutes. So it was a call we had to make but I’m so glad it came across as realistic!”

The Disciple ends on a suitably broad note, neither optimistic nor overly pessimistic. There’s a sense of profound peace but, at the same time, it’s all very muted, like the relief-dread mixture you’d feel after finalising your will. It’s a tough balancing act, but Tamhane pulls it off in style.

“I think the story has been told in a way that allows the audience to project their own ideas of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ onto Sharad,” Tamhane said. “There’s that breathing space where you can form your own conclusions.”

Published on May 03, 2021

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