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'The Disciple' Is Triumphant, Even As It Tells A Story Of Failure

Aditya Modak plays an aspiring Hindustani classical musician in <em>The Disciple.</em>
Aditya Modak plays an aspiring Hindustani classical musician in The Disciple.

Before I saw The Disciple, I knew nothing about Hindustani, or northern Indian, classical music. By the end of the movie, I knew a little bit more, though I'd still be hard-pressed to follow the different intonations that singers bring to their performances, or to explain how a raga works. (That's the musical framework that allows performers to improvise.) Fortunately, no expertise is needed to appreciate The Disciple, which is both a welcome introduction to a kind of music we rarely hear onscreen and a richly layered story of a young man's artistic struggle.

His name is Sharad, and he's played with great depth and emotional subtlety by Aditya Modak. It's 2006, and the 24-year-old Sharad lives in Mumbai with his grandmother, working occasionally but spending most of his time studying his chosen art form. Hindustani classical music doesn't just require impeccable technique and brilliant improvisation. It's an all-consuming discipline, demanding a level of spiritual purity that singers can spend a lifetime trying to achieve.

We learn some of this from the lectures that Sharad listens to as he rides his motorbike at night around Mumbai, in scenes that capture a calmer side of this famously bustling city. We also spend a lot of time watching and listening to him practice. The writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane immerses us in this music, letting us get used to its distinct sounds and rhythms.

Sharad is completely devoted to his craft, but he's an erratic performer at best. His uninspired singing gets him ejected early from a young artists' competition, and his longtime teacher and guru doesn't hesitate to criticize him during rehearsals, and even during a public performance. The Disciple throws cold water on the notion, much beloved by so many inspirational movies, that hard work and a little luck are all it takes. It's an unsparing portrait of artistic frustration.

About halfway through, the movie leaps ahead to roughly the present day and becomes an almost satirical depiction of the Indian music scene. Sharad is older and a lot more cynical, working as a schoolteacher and trying to keep his performing career afloat. He watches with both contempt and envy as a younger singer becomes an overnight sensation on an American Idol-style reality TV show. And in perhaps the movie's most emotionally lacerating scene, he has an ill-advised sitdown with a veteran music critic who witheringly dismisses Sharad's heroes, including his beloved guru.

We critics of course make convenient movie villains. But what sets The Disciple apart is how fairly it treats all its characters and how scrupulously it refuses to take sides. Tamhane sympathizes with Sharad through all his disappointments, and he clearly shares his belief that his art is worth pursuing and preserving. But he's also too honest a filmmaker to indulge Sharad's self-pity.

Even the director's exquisite visual approach, aided here by the Polish cinematographer Michal Sobocinski, winds up subtly undermining Sharad and putting his struggles in perspective. As in Tamhane's excellent 2014 legal drama, Court, nearly every scene consists of a single uninterrupted take, framed at a careful remove from the characters. We're drawn into the cramped little rooms where Sharad practices, and the large, crowded music halls where he performs. This is Modak's screen debut, and the lack of closeups makes his performance all the more impressive. Even at a distance, and with very few words, he conveys Sharad's bitterness and disillusionment as his life refuses to go as planned.

While The Disciple harks back to classic Indian films like Satyajit Ray's The Music Room, it also carries stylistic echoes of Alfonso Cuarón's similarly meditative and gorgeously photographed movie Roma. That's no accident: Tamhane, who's 34, was mentored by Cuarón and worked on the set of Roma. Cuarón in turn provided guidance on The Disciple and is credited as an executive producer. There's something poignant about that, given how much the story focuses on the student-teacher relationship and the way artistic traditions are passed down. The Disciple may tell a story about failure, but it's a triumphant achievement from a gifted film artist.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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