A still from <i>The Disciple.</i>

‘The Disciple’ Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Masterpiece

The review of Chaitanya Tamhane’s film The Disciple which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival.

Movie Reviews
5 min read

‘The Disciple’ Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Masterpiece

A seriously sensitive film, The Disciple is about the pursuit of excellence, of art, of our ideals at the cost of everything and everyone. It is, in James Joyce fashion, the portrait of the artist, who remains possessed, passionate, full of a silent seething desire, envisioning a future in the clouds, dragging his feet along the asphalt until he can one day fly off. It’s also about the vanity, insecurity, jealousy and anger that often accompanies this pious dream.

The protagonist of the film, like Tamhane’s Court, is just like anyone else. An ordinary man who goes through nothing extraordinary or otherworldly but simply human and Tamhane’s understanding of humanity is what makes his “ordinary” people memorable and immortal, contrary to caricature “heroes”.

This is real life, the real world, and your anger with it is futile because it owes you nothing. We all live and play in a game of make belief here, during our brief time on earth and one should not take themselves too seriously.

It is also a story about Mumbai beyond the glamour, gangsters, shanties and slums. The city that keeps on giving, an onion with layer on layer to peel back. Big fancy bars for singers, reality singing TV shows that enjoy poverty porn in their contestants and English-speaking South Bombay homes that sit every now and then to appreciate classical music as the novel thing of that week (before they move onto Ed Sheeran or Due Lipa’s Mumbai visit). Here this world meets the proud, strong, age old devotees of India’s great Hindustani classical music tradition. Their lives, their struggles and their story that now exists only in the niche. A city of the traditional and the urban, rubbing shoulders, creating friction. The city where the “pure” tries to swim, head half under water in a sea of the "corrupt” and corrupted.

The authenticity and balance with which the difficult, gruelling, internal and sometimes rewarding only after much hardship world of Hindustani classical music is depicted, is a labour of love.
A poster of <i>The Disciple.</i>
A poster of The Disciple.

Sharad Nerulkar, is the ideal disciple. He dedicates his time to caring for his guru, in sickness and in health, he practices (less than he day dreams though) and suffers and celebrates in dignified silence, without a single smile or tear. He is as tempered as his music. His self-inflicted wounds of a lack leave his skin crawling, eyes vacant and heart yearning for an anchor outside of himself, which he can’t seem to find, making his frustration all the more palpable. In his personal aspirations, the film becomes an ode to the conflict that sits in each of us, the conflict and negotiation between who we really are and who we want to be.

The apathetic, monotonous, almost robotic indifference of the people of this world is identical to that of Court. They stare, eat, sleep, masturbate, shit and repeat, without so much as batting an eye lid at the storm constantly brewing in the heart of our protagonist (and in us).

A still from <i>The Disciple.</i>
A still from The Disciple.
(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)
The sense of loneliness evoked through Tamhane’s style, which lacks melodrama and heightened emotions, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Tamhane isn’t merely a good storyteller but a genius one. The film through his technique teaches an important lesson, that there comes a time in life to recognise and accept your true station in life.

There comes a time for honest and painful introspection and self assessment. Not all those who play good gully cricket will become Sachin Tendulkar, not all those who know their way with a paint brush MF Hussain, not all those who can string a sentence together Premchand. Sorry, but when you were a child, and your parents told you, you were special and could be the Prime Minister or the first man on Jupiter, they perhaps forgot to add a disclaimer. Newsflash : most people and most of life is mundane, boring and even meaningless. A lot of cards in life are dealt against us and fortune favours very few. Don’t let your hair grow white and loneliness linger chasing an ideal that is exactly that, an ideal, a mirage for the most part. Life is short. Laugh, live and make merry. This struggle of self realisation and acceptance, in any form, is the essence of this film, making it relatable and universal. A house cat, after all, cannot will itself into a cheetah.

Tamhane’s dedication to his casting process and pre-production is evident in the results. The realism is indeed hyper. The impassive wide shots, the distance so deliberately between us and the man whose story we see, the lack of any external expression of drama and the silent, almost invisible music score are classic auteur (to have such a marked and distinct style only two feature films in, is a feat in itself for Tamhane).

The actors and the acting are both so unassuming that you forget it’s a performance. You wonder if it’s a documentary. The performances of Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid and the voice of Sumitra Bhave are the show stoppers.
A still from <i>The Disciple.</i>
A still from The Disciple.
(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

The brilliance of the dialogues is in how much like conversation they seem. Casual, economic and natural, not a word out of place or jarring. Nothing falling on the ears making them sore. Tamhane is also a master of narrative speed and momentum. He knows when to let the scene linger, long moments of voyeuristic observation on our part, and when to cut between the loud unabashed sounds of porn and classical music in a split second, making us gasp at the audacity of his silent and dry humour. He has the beautiful ability to make the most mundane settings and moments come alive with subtle suspense, giving the film a slight horror like uneasiness in parts, underlined with anxiety and surrealism, straight out of Edgar Allan Poe’s book. A triple treat, Tamhane writes, directs and edits this seamless masterpiece and he does all three with no fault to find.

The Disciple, like Court, is at once about so much, that it’s hard to not only watch it once, but again and again, as it ages like fine wine in your mind, its flavours, notes and layers spreading through your system, slowly and over time. Gully Boy may have had little to no chance at the Oscars, and we all knew that, but this one may hit the spot. Having already won awards world over in Venice, Toronto and more, I have a feeling the Academy may not know what hit them with this one. The Disciple is a masterpiece.

(The Disciple is now streaming on Netflix)

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