Stories about musicians seeking a seemingly unattainable perfection aren’t in short supply. The most obvious recent example is Whiplash, where Damien Chazelle transformed the arduous struggle between student and teacher—which isn’t easy to make exciting—into an electrifying cat-and-mouse thriller. With The Disciple, director Chaitanya Tamhane takes a more sedate approach, trusting the audience to remain invested in a character study where the protagonist’s change is barely perceptible over the course of its 2-hour runtime. It’s an admirable concept, but the result is inconsistent and often, perhaps fittingly, tedious.
The story follows Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) over the course of many years as he aspires to be a professional vocalist of Indian classical music. His singing is very good, but unfortunately, “good” isn’t “great,” and even “great” is a far cry from “perfect.” Early on, we hear voiceover explaining the difficulty of learning this type of music: it’s described as an “eternal quest,” unfit for those seeking financial or personal success. It’s not only a craft to master, it’s a spiritual journey; perfection can only be achieved through pure serenity. In a brilliant move, it’s soon revealed that this voiceover isn’t just for the audience’s benefit and understanding—it’s tied to his day job. He earns his (apparently meager) wages transferring old records and tapes—typically classical music, but in this case, lectures—to CD and sells them at concerts. It’s a subtle bit of ironic wit, by having him participate in a process that not only updates classical music for the digital age, but also turning it into a commodity.
This subtlety is also reflected in the filmmaking, where Tamhane relies on framing and body language to convey much of the drama. The most engaging scenes are the musical performances, where Nerulkar either takes center stage or is beside his mentor Guruji (Arun Dravid). Especially for those who can’t tell the difference between a decent and great singer on The Voice, let alone distinguish the difference in Indian classical music, it’s important that the audience can track whether Nerulkar is killing it or bombing on stage, and Tamhane does a marvelous job ensuring we sense the feeling of embarrassment or pride along with him.
Where the film will likely falter for most is in the pacing. Though it’s structured to follow Nerulkar over many years, jumping forward in time without an on-screen indicator, there’s a distinct lack of progression from scene to scene. That may be an intentional choice, to have the audience have to endure the frustrating sense of stagnation along with the protagonist, but it does the film no favors, especially when there’s already an atmosphere of tranquility. Things pick up in the final 20 minutes where Nerulkar’s view on the craft he’s dedicated his life to gets called into question, but that’s far too late to begin breaking away from the stasis of the previous 90 minutes.
Though it has a limited appeal for American audiences, there are still highlights for those who want to see a story focused on the shifting of Indian culture and tradition. The precise cinematography and appropriately restrained performances help distinguish it from other stories of its type, and of course, for many it will be a glimpse into an entirely different land and culture than they’re used to. The Disciple isn’t without its strengths, but ultimately, it’s too muted to make a lasting mark.
C+ NYFF aditya modak arun dravid C+ chaitanya tamhane damien chazelle new york film festival 2020 NYFF the disciple whiplash
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