BFI LFF 2020

The Disciple review – a detailed and empathetic tragedy

Chaitanya Tamhane helms this quiet drama about a musician whose attempt to master his instrument is upended by a changing world

The tragedy of The Disciple can be surmised in one early shot. At a Raag competition in Mumbai, Guruji's (Arun Dravid) warbling, throaty singing falls upon the ears of a passive audience. The camera slowly zooms past them, past Guruji, and into the rapt face of sitar playing Sharad (Aditya Modak). Across decades, we see Sharad attempt to master Raag, an improvisational form of Indian classical music made most popular in Europe by Ravi Shankar, to the increasing indifference of the people around him.

For director Chaitanya Tamhane, who follows up his 2014 festival hit Court with this tale of the slow loss of ambition to reality, Raag stands in for a society changing beyond comprehension. Tamhane returns to tracking shots of Sharad atop a moped cruising in slow motion through empty Mumbai streets, listening to mythic singer Maai’s 1972 lectures. The melodic singing over the calm drone of a sitar forms the other half of The Disciple’s aural palette. Tempered, but with the threat of an eruption, just like Sharad.

Alfonso Cuarón has a producer credit on The Disciple, and like his Roma, Tamhane teleports viewers into its time with quiet clarity. Precise camera moves and gestural zooms keep their distance from the characters. Do we really know any of them, or are we merely hypnotised by the sound? But rather than feel frozen out of Sharad’s spiritual journey, the sheer discipline with which Tamhane depicts his subject’s obsession is compelling and trance-like. We see Sharad massaging the body of the ailing Guruji, as though trying to absorb his talent and wisdom. And yet people are bored by their fidelity to tradition.

To master Raag one must find a pure meditative state free form negativity. Where does art fit into this? How can you be an artist without impure thought? The distractions of porn and intrusive technology haunt Sharad. We see him geting older, fatter, nobody seems to care for Raag anymore. People vibing in the moment are replaced with people just taking selfies. Mobile phones interrupt practice, there's no sponsorship for classical music, and those empty streets that Sharad stalked are filled with honking cars. Where is art found now? Modak's tempered performance keeps Sharad’s cards close to his chest. As his material conditions get worse, Raag might stand in for religion, or even cinema itself, but when the change comes, it is permanent. A bitter pill to swallow, but The Disciple is a remarkably detailed and empathetic piece of filmmaking.

The Disciple was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.

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