The Disciple is a gritty film. No, it does not have any scenes of explicit violence or gun-toting gangsters; but in its depiction of the quest, not always hopeful, and ultimate non-success of its protagonist, a Hindustani classical vocalist, it projects a relentless, dull and gritty unrest.
Not for nothing has it received international acclaim, for though it captures the ecosystem of a small musical community in Mumbai, and portrays the struggle of a Khayal vocalist in this very localised context, it is about fundamental universal conditions of man as artist.
In this case, the world of Khayal is laden with a rich oral history filled with stories of great masters with legendary performance skills, honed by terrifying practise routines, myths of the power of ragas, their elusiveness, legends of great successes and great failures. Thrown into the already heady mix is the outlier " the one who renounces performance, who closets herself with music, and whose tapasya has bestowed upon her rare secrets of the music and the status of a rishi. The artistic journey in this world has to negotiate this chaotic territory.
And so, the protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar, a recipient of this rich tapestry of ideas, yearns for success while questioning the success of the actually successful. He grasps at an abstract ideal of artistic transcendence that he receives through the lectures of Maai, a musician who spurned public performance, and at the same time he seeks ordinary success " more concerts, more YouTube views, more appreciation. A shadow across his face at all times captures the inherent conflict of this impossible situation.
Individual limitations of talent and opportunity lock horns with an unattainable, perhaps romanticised ideal, a yearning to achieve an abstract perfection that is not a "matter of technique" for technique can be taught and practiced and mastered.
What the protagonist seeks is the "real thing" " a seeking that is captured in the iteration of scenes in slow motion of his night bike rides on deserted roads with the voice of Maai enveloping his world through his earphones. "Don't sing for audiences. Shut them out " audiences, organisers, praise, fame. There should only be room for the raga in your thoughts. And then even if you fail, you would have at least been honest."
For young Nerulkar, failure is all around " he can't accept that the same celebrity performers get invited again and again everywhere while many other, "truer" musicians fail to get their due; he is dejected at not winning competitions, at not being able to avoid repetitiveness in his music, at not being invited to perform, at negative comments on his YouTube music uploads, his own Guru saying "there is no life in your music " it sounds disjointed", Maai warning about failure, and false success which is a worse failure.
How does one break that ceiling? How does one go beyond technique and pedantic correctness? How does one soar into the promised but elusive vast open spaces of artistic exuberance? And artistic truth? His Guru tells him " reflect upon your music and practice. But how? Nerulkar believes it is attainable " he is not a cynic, but he does not quite comprehend it and finally, cannot do it for himself.
Perhaps Maai speaks the truth; her warnings about the difficulty of the journey may not be exaggerated for Nerulkar, after years of sadhana, does give up. Why? Is it that he is not good enough or that he set for himself an impossible ideal? In what is perhaps the least convincing scene in the film, he walks off the stage leaving unfinished an exploration of raga Miyan Malhar, an exploration that is restless, trying to break free from the mould. It is shocking and tantalising and throwing a spoke in the steadfastly undramatic pace of the film.
The film unfolds through the stupefaction of the mundane. Drama is rarely explicit but is achieved through sudden sharp cuts and splicing of montage such as from the glitz of a music reality show to the sound of the droning tanpura and the bandish in Bhoop that Nerulkar teaches an assorted bunch of children and young adults " his reality. The same audience, the same venue, a slightly heavier and older Nerulkar singing to the same 30-40 people. Success has not visited him. He tries to shed his enchantment with Maai's ideas and her voice. He tries to get them out of his head. The oppression of the feeling of inadequacy as a musician never leaves him.
The film might seem all too bleak to some. The musical goal is portrayed as forbidding, inaccessible, and the journey gruelling " and it is all that. But what keeps its practitioners going is the power of this music, the hypnotic spell it casts, not what is said about it, extraordinary or inane. Should the film not have made any gesture towards the beauty of this music and its exhilarating quality? Such are a million questions before a film maker or indeed any artist. In this case, the love for the music is a given " having Nerulkar or anyone else say it would have not helped the delicate resonances of the film. He loves this music passed on to him by his father, loves what his teacher teaches him, loves the music of lesser-known performers, agonises over its murder by celebrity musicians who play to the lowest common denominator, offer what the "audience wants". He doesn't have to say it.
Again, it has been pointed out, the film's middle class upper caste setting should have been acknowledged. Does the director not do so because he too is from the upper caste? This would have been a worse thing to do than have Nerulkar wax eloquent about the beauty of Khayal.
What can be said, what can't be, what should be said and what should not be " that is the crux of art always. And, the less said the better. The filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane and all involved " Aditya Modak in the lead role, Arun Dravid as the guru, Aneesh Pradhan for music design and others " all have pulled off a quiet miracle. You come away from the film with a vague restlessness descended upon you, and miraculously, it is one that Abhinavagupta said you can savour and relish.
Watch The Disciple streaming on Netflix on a quiet afternoon or late in the night and you can hear the low humming of the mundane even as you follow Nerulkar's story " his struggle is almost palpable with no epiphanous answers or consolations.
Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at email@example.com