May 27, 2021
CHAITANYA TAMHANE’S WORK is gaining momentum. His directorial debut, Court (2015), a meditation on the banal evil of India’s judicial system, was praised for challenging the ideological conventions of the legal drama through static shots and long takes. No fast cut, close-up-heavy procedural is staged inside the courtroom; no dramatic monologues are delivered; justice is not served. Tamhane’s second feature, The Disciple (2020), while more kinetic in its camerawork (by Michal Sobociniski), proceeds at a similarly measured pace. Its narrative—about the existential journey of Sharad (Aditya Modak), a young vocalist seeking acclaim who must come to terms with his middling talent—connects the subjective experience of movie time to the meter of Hindustani classical music to form a dazzling study of memory, be it biographical, mediatic, or historical.
Set in Mumbai’s Marathi middle-class, presumably upper-caste milieu, The Disciple mostly unfolds through a series of long shots that keep viewers at a remove from our ambitious protagonist, dimly lit during practice and minimized on stage by Sobociniski’s wide-angle view. The film fluidly switches between past, present, and future, tenses here treated like notes on a scale. Indeed, the improvisatory demands of Hindustani music dictated the terms of shooting, especially the concert sequences, performed by a cast of actual musicians (Modak is also professionally trained). The long take captures something of Hindustani classical recitals’ irreplicable arrangements of time as voice—it’s impossible to “take it from the top” without beginning an entirely new song—and the movie’s cyclical variations on similar scenes and settings mimic the raga’s rhythm. (Alfonso Cuarón, Tamhane’s mentor through the Rolex Art Initiative, likened the film’s pace to the throb of a tanpura.) Sharad’s rather bland struggle to win accolades and critical praise is enlivened by slow zooms as he performs solo or accompanies his guru (Arun Dravid) on stage, the camera exteriorizing his intent and frustration (and, perhaps, his vanity). A recurring oneiric sequence, acting as a kind of fixed melody, finds him riding his motorcycle down Mumbai’s eerily empty roads at night, surrendering to the acousmatic spell of the mysterious maestra Sindhubai Jadhav, aka Maai.
As with its parampara of teacher-student characters, The Disciple belongs to a long tradition: Within the canon of Indian art cinema, there is an established genre fixated on the theme and form of Hindustani classical music. In fact, Sharad’s journey from the twentieth century to the twenty-first mirrors the course of Indian experimental film, articulated through shifts in technology and distribution. The Disciple is as much about the relationship between music and life as it is a homage to Indian cinematic heritage.
The Indian New Wave—the country’s first full-fledged movement for noncommercial narrative cinema—is widely considered to have been inaugurated by Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti in 1969. His interest in developing a grammar against the grain of the popular film establishment was shared by Kumar Shahani, whose Maya Darpan (1972) explored the transformation of post-Independence India from feudal to industrial-modern through the story of its heroine’s challenge to the caste-patriarchal order represented by her landlord father. Both Kaul and Shahani were students of Ritwik Ghatak at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), trained in classical music, and committed to stretching the medium’s spatiotemporal possibilities. Though music is woven into the texture of many of their films, it is the subject of Kaul’s documentaries Dhrupad (1982)—featuring his guru, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar—and Siddheshwari (1989) and Shahani’s Khyal Gatha (1989).
The film scholar Amrit Gangar theorizes this type of cinematic practice as prayoga, rejecting the Eurocentric concept of the “avant-garde.” The Sanskrit word prayoga carries a wealth of connotations, most promisingly the English practice. “Unlike avant-garde, prayoga is a non-military word,” Gangar writes. “It is, in fact, artistic and meditative.” Drawing on the subcontinent’s precolonial arts and philosophies, Ghatak, Kaul, and Shahani (the latter two among other New Wave directors) nourished the craft of cineastes working outside of the mainstream. A generation of Indian film practitioners claims descent from them, whether directly—in the case of Kaul’s filmmaker-daughter, Shambhavi—or indirectly: Gurvinder Singh was mentored by Kaul, and Amit Dutta’s films bear a family resemblance to theirs. Thus, a post-Ghatak legacy of art cinema continues with echoes of the classical guru-shishya system, albeit with fewer feudal trappings (though not entirely free of them, as the upper-caste skew of the prayoga filmmakers indicates).
In his playfulness with diegetic and extradiegetic time, unconventional manipulation of space, and audiovisual homage to the Hindustani classical music unit, Tamhane is a claimant to this Cinema of Prayoga. Among other formal overlaps, an ice-blue scene of young Sharad and his father at a plein air concert brings to mind Dhrupad’s outdoor performances in white Rajasthani courtyards and on terraces. Another scene, in which Sharad hunches over a computer, absorbing Maai’s tape-recorded lectures, invokes Siddheshwari’s finale, where the actress portraying the titular maestra (Mita Vashisht) watches footage of her to prepare for the role. Cuarón’s guidance of Tamhane seems fitting, given their shared fondness for the long take. And as the former did in Roma (2018), Tamhane evokes different periods in his character’s life by adopting the media aesthetic prevalent in that time.
At its heart, The Disciple seems to be a critique of new media’s capitalistic discontents, undertaking a synoptic media archaeology through the profilmic embedment of state TV recordings, HDTV clips, and YouTube videos, as well as an arc about Sharad’s stint as an archival assistant, digitizing albums for preservation. The labor of memory undergirds the film: Sharad’s life is shaped by the legacy of his late father, a music historian, and it is as the founder of a label that distributes rare classical compositions that he finds his own salvation. The contemporary is no less fraught a terrain. One scene, in which Sharad and his grandmother watch a televised report about a Muslim man’s lynching followed by a singing audition for an American Idol–style competition, encapsulates two phenomena: the triumph of the Hindu right-wing and the subsequent abandonment of artists by patrons like the state, replaced with corporate entertainment media. Unlike early Indian experimental films—including those critical of the government and funded by Films Division, India’s state-owned organization for producing and distributing films—The Disciple was privately produced and therefore took years to get made, even with Cuarón on board as executive producer (it was recently acquired by Netflix).
Mani Kaul engaged extensively with the theory and prayoga of classical music in attempts to analogize it to the expressive potential of his medium, so much so that he used the phrase “classical cinema” to describe his work. In his 1991 essay “Seen From Nowhere,” he resists the linearity so privileged in Western art, arguing that the raga’s “crux of emotional experience” lies in the indivisible space between one tone and another, concurrently played, a synchronic arrangement of spacetime. In The Disciple’s stunning climax, two separate moments of Sharad’s life are harmonized according to the raga’s simultaneous logic. Earlier in the film, our twenty-four-year-old protagonist was urged by his guru to practice through his self-doubt “till he is forty.” Now, at that fateful age, he has the devastating comprehension, mid-tremolo, that he will never master music. In a single shot, the camera glides toward his back and circles him, giving us, at last, a mid-close-up of the artist manqué having achieved self-knowledge, the nearest we ever get to him. And yet a fumbled song is not without value. For the disciple of the arts, as for the pursuer of a full life, the risk of failure is always worth the price of admission, the pleasure of practice an end unto itself.
— Kamayani Sharma
The Disciple is currently streaming on Netflix.