Northern Indian classical music sounds like nothing other than itself: The jangling of the sitar and the meditational warbling of the improvised vocals known as raga have a profound ancient quality that taps into the mystery of human existence. Ravi Shankar may be the name most closely associated with popularizing such melodies in the West, but the art form (known as Hindustani music) extends well beyond the accomplishments of one man. That’s the hard truth faced by Sharad (real-life musician and acting newcomer Aditya Modak) in Chaitanya Tamhane’s brilliant sophomore drama “The Disciple,” the story of an idealistic young performer who dreams of capturing the magic of a musical traditional that he may lack the talent to achieve himself. In Tamhane’s dreamy, transcendent character study, the undulating raga melodies serve as a transformative portal to self-discovery that places the audiences in the confines of its entrancing power.
“The Disciple” follows Tamhane’s stellar first feature, “Court,” which also looked at the complex role of music in Indian society, in that case through the lens of a corrupt judicial system. Here, the music that Sharad adores take on a more personal connotation, as the man contends with the provincial nature of his vocation in a world that waits for no one. Taking cues from his wizened mentor (veteran singer Arun Dravid), Sharad dreams of obtaining high marks as a classical music vocalist, absorbing enthusiasm for the process from his late father. But there’s a reason only an elite few manage to excel at the rhythmic, transcendental wailings of the raga, and it doesn’t take long to see that Sharad might not have the right stuff.
Sharad has committed himself to spiritual convictions about the art form, and the movie hovers within them in a developing blend of mystery and awe. (At times, it doubles as a documentary of the form.) With his friend, he obsesses over old tapes of obscure vocalists, baffled by the homogenized sounds that come from its most famous living practitioners. Roaming across Mumbai on his motorcycle, he listens to audio tapes from Maii, the raga guru who taught his own mentor, as she rattles off the daunting philosophy behind what it takes to master the craft. “Even 10 lifetimes aren’t enough,” she intones, extolling the virtues of “the eternal quest.”
That’s all well and good for the sacred nature of the pursuit, but doesn’t help a romantic loner whose mother hassles him about getting “a real job.” Sharad’s trapped somewhere between ambition and arrested development: He lives with his aunt, and spends far too much time attending to his teacher’s physical needs, even as the man offers nothing but discouragement. To the untrained ear, Sharad has obvious talent — but the world keeps sending messages that it deserves a different vessel. As Tamhane cycles through Sharad’s miserable routine, from nervous practice sessions to late-night porn indulgences, the movie hints at the potential for a psychological thriller, but the filmmaker has subtler intentions. As the years rush by, Sharad’s forced to interrogate the mythology associated with the discipline through a series of crushing reality checks. Once his childlike adoration melts away and a new sense of responsibility takes hold, the movie finds its footing as a remarkable coming-of-age drama that builds its argument from the inside out.
“The Disciple” unfolds in slow, melancholic rhythms on par with the music at its center. Set against Mumbai’s bustling cityscape, a backdrop at violent odds with Sharad’s contemplative vocation, the movie follows the character through three distinct eras as he grows older and continues to internalize his frustration over his professional inertia. (Modak’s physical transformation from a nimble and clean-shaven 24-year-old to a mustachioed music instructor with a dad-bod is a superb storytelling device.) Sharad experiences a kind of ineffable anxiety that can only be expressed through the abstract language of music — but that keeps failing him, too. In scene after scene, Tamhane’s camera sits with the character as his resentment percolates just beneath the surface. When one producer tells Sharad, years into his career, that he’d be a good fit for an upcoming showcase of “newcomers,” the look of disappointment on his face practically pops off the screen. The same effect settles in when the minutes as he watches the superficial ebullience of an “American Idol” type of show for Indian vocalists, or when he browses negative comments about one of his own performances on YouTube. Sharad’s a purist about his music, but the modern world has no sympathy for his delicate plight.
Tamhane does such a fine job of bringing individual encounters to vivid life that it’s unfortunate when the movie breaks that spell through flashbacks. At the same time, the movie excels at tracking the way Sharad keeps reevaluating his experiences, questioning his convictions about his talent even if he can’t find the words to explain it. Alfonso Cuaron has an executive producer credit on “The Disciple,” and it’s easy to see why the “Roma” director would have an affinity for Tamhane’s glacial style: The movies have an evident kinship for the way they create a complete immersion into one character’s world, navigating the texture and boundaries of memory through subjective experience. In “The Disciple,” those memories cloud the reality of the moment, forcing a reckoning that finally comes to the fore in a riveting climactic performance.
With each quiet moment enlivened by another stirring raga, “The Disciple” charts one man’s quest toward humility in a society that has been defined by self-reflection for millennia. Sharad meditates throughout the movie, but the enigma of his thought process hovers as a question mark throughout. From the first scene until its closing moments, the movie hints at a big moment that never quite arrives, but the profundity comes with the big picture. “The Disciple” is more about the journey than the destination, with a conclusion that suggests the student never really becomes the teacher when the subject is his own life.
“The Disciple” premiered in competition at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and next screens at TIFF and NYFF. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.