Disciple, The (2020)

As a character study on a young Indian classical music vocalist trying to persevere in his quest to be a master of the craft, Tamhane’s sophomore feature is occasionally overwrought and ironically one-note.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #2,053

Dir. Chaitanya Tamhane
2020 | India | Drama/Music | 127 mins | 2.35:1 | Marathi, English, Hindi & Bengali
Not rated – likely to be R21

Cast: Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave
Plot: Sharad Nerulkar has devoted himself to becoming an Indian classical vocalist, a lifelong quest in which few succeed. Initiated into this centuries-old tradition by his father, he follows his dream with sincerity and discipline, committing himself entirely to his artistic journey.
Awards: Won Best Screenplay & FIPRESCI Prize (Venice)
International Sales: New Europe Film Sales

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Artistic Quest, Tradition vs Modernity
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Screener
Spoilers: No

The Disciple is Chaitanya Tamhane’s critically-acclaimed follow-up to his revelatory debut feature, Court (2014), winning Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and executive-produced by Alfonso Cuaron. 

It’s also the first Indian film to play in the main competition at Venice since Mira Nair’s Golden Lion-winning Monsoon Wedding (2001). All that being said, I have to go against the tide here and say that I felt the film to be occasionally overwrought and underwhelming. 

As a character study on a young Indian classical music vocalist trying to persevere in his quest to be a master of the craft, Tamhane’s film is ironically one-note insofar as its characterisation of Sharad, the protagonist, is concerned.  I couldn’t feel much for his plight, though that has to do with a performance that is rather impenetrable. 

As an Indian classical music fan (well, my favourite Indian movie of all time is Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room), I found the musical performances in The Disciple to be impressive and immersive, which Tamhane captures with long takes that slowly creep toward Sharad. 

Themes such as the relevance of traditional classical music in our modern (digital) world are explored, and is perhaps most elegantly summed up in the final shot of the film. 

One major problem I have of Tamhane’s work is that it gets repetitive after a while; it’s not about the slow pacing (I enjoy slow movies), but the repetition of scenes that overstay their welcome. 

The most emblematic example of this is the pretentious slow-mo scenes of Sharad riding a motorcycle in the middle of the night, listening to the wise words of a master musician on earphones, as Tamhane captures his solitude and elusive musical quest with what appears to be style, but really is tedium in disguise. 

Stripped of these ‘introspective’ transition shots and the bulk of the musical performances, The Disciple didn’t have enough to bind me to its narrative, let alone the titular character. 

And what’s with the jarring shots of Sharad masturbating to pornography—I understand that Tamhane is going for an explicit counterpoint to the spirituality and asceticism of traditional music-making, but surely, he could have written something that is effectively more nuanced.   

Grade: B-


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