'The Disciple': Film Review | Venice 2020

The Disciple
Venice Film Festival
A slow-moving race to reach the top.

Award-winning director Chaitanya Tamhane ('Court') examines a modern youth determined to excel in India’s difficult traditional music scene.

With just two feature films under his belt, Mumbai director and playwright Chaitanya Tamhane has emerged as one of the new stars of Indian art house cinema thanks to a piercing camera that dissects the social and psychological layers of his characters. His first film, Court, was an award-winning look at the deadly bureaucracy behind India’s justice system, worthy of a nod from Frederick Wiseman. The Disciple echoes its rigor and determination in exploring the struggles of an aspiring young singer, albeit at its own slow and thorough pace. The film’s bow in Venice competition before it heads to Toronto and New York should assure it of a wide swathe of international audiences.

Not as compulsively watchable as its predecessor, the story suffers mainly from the unfamiliarity (in the West) of Indian classical music, which is likely to somewhat cool its appeal for non-Indian audiences. And music is at its very soul. Featuring two real, top-notch classical vocalists, Arun Dravid and young Aditya Modak as, respectively, the master and his disciple, the movie resounds with complex, pulsating music sung from the heart and meant to put its audience in a serene, highly meditative mood.

But caveats aside, the film has its own fascination that rises above the type of music being played and sung. It’s the universal story of a youth who aims for the stars and finds himself with his feet tied to earth — and maybe that’s not a bad thing. With one eye out to winning competitions, the singer-in-training, Sharad (Modak), easily fits into the narrative mold of movies like Whiplash and A Star Is Born as he studies under a fierce disciplinarian and sacrifices his private life to perfect his art.

Often, he performs with his teacher and guru (Dravid), a white-haired vocalist of sublime gifts who is getting on in years. Like a true disciple, Sharad makes Guru tea, bathes him, massages his legs and uses the little money he makes at a recording studio to help him pay his debts. In return he receives strict instruction and harsh criticism, but also a legacy of teaching from a legendary female vocalist named Maai, who taught his guru.

Just how difficult his studies are is brought home in a graceful scene at a concert in a private home, with the family and their guests sitting on the living room floor, listening raptly. The master sings a long riff of glissando notes, then invites his students to repeat them. Sharad is a disaster. No matter how long and hard he practices, he seems terribly far behind his master, and much of the film’s suspense is seeing whether he will ever catch up.

The price of such dedication, on the personal level, is high. Sharad puts off visiting his mother. He’s 24 years old but getting married and having a family are out of the question; tradition says that until the age of 40, the student must simply practice and put such worldly matters aside. Unexpectedly, and honestly, he takes the homemade route to sexual relief.

Doing his own editing, Tamhane juggles the time frame to age his hero as the years go by. We also see Sharad as a young boy, accompanying his father and friends on an overnight train ride to listen to a classical concert by a famous singer held outdoors at dawn. His father, who was his first voice teacher, failed to reach the heights as a singer, and it comes as a shock to hear someone opine that his knowledge of music surpassed his abilities.

Soon after this, Sharad is introduced to a famous music critic, who arrogantly shoots down his master and even casts vulgar aspersions on Maai. Will the boy’s dedication survive these attacks on his beliefs, and his growing interaction with the world? The ending, clever and ambiguous at the same time, comes out of the blue and leaves the audience thinking.

Although as an actor Modak has a range of expression that hovers around worried or irritated, there is often a look of deep belief in his eyes, and you can feel his musical understanding is authentic. But it is in his moments of weakness and disgust with the ever-degrading musical standards around him that he makes contact with the character. In the role of the dignified, ailing master, Dravid plays without a false step and conveys his absolute confidence in the divine power of traditional music.

DP Michal Sobocinski shoots the concerts and most of the action in austere head-on, long-held shots and in quiet colors that look as natural and unfiltered as possible. Even the noisy heat and chaos of Mumbai is stilled in shots of Sharad riding his motorbike around an almost deserted city, lost in his thoughts.

Production companies: Zoo Entertainment
Cast: Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave, Kiran Yadnyopavit
Director, screenwriter, editor: Chaitanya Tamhane
Producer: Vivek Gomber
Executive producer: Alfonso Cuaron
Director of photography: Michal Sobocinski
Production designers: Pooja Talreja, Ravin D. Karde
Costume designer: Sachin Lovalekar
Music: Aneesh Pradhan
World sales: New Europe Film Sales (North America: Endeavor Content)
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
128 minutes
In Marathi, Hindi, English and Bengali