Wednesday, April 10

My streaming gem: why you should watch The Disciple | drama films


Movies about mediocre artists almost never get made, for the obvious reason that history has rightfully forgotten about them. It’s a delicious indignity, for example, that the great Oscar-winning adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about the obscure Italian composer Antonio Salieri is called Amadeus, after the musical savant whose genius far eclipsed him. Sometimes generational fame is a matter of timing or ineffable charisma, as the Coen brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis implied about his hero, a never-was folk musician. (It seems no coincidence that the man who played Salieri, F Murray Abraham, delivers the devastating news that he “doesn’t see any money” in the singer’s work.) But in the real world, such stories are written constantly, since so few have the goods to realize their dreams of greatness.

The superb Indian drama The Disciple, picked up and released last year on Netflix, offers the rarest of rare portraits of artistic mediocrities, because it’s not about that precious window of fame that’s usually sparked in youth. It’s not even about the pursuit of fame at all per se, at least beyond the narrow slice of connoisseurs who appreciate the rigors of traditional Indian classical music. For Sharad (Aditya Neruikar), a passionate young musician who’s learning at the feet (and sometimes massaging those feet) of Guruji (Arun Dravid), a master vocalist, patience is a necessary virtue. After one disappointing performance, Sharad is told that singers can’t be expected to find their voice until they’re 40. At that point in the film, he’s 16 years away.

As the title suggests, The Disciple isn’t about a typical mentor-mentee relationship, but more about extreme devotion, which brings it as much in line with films about the acetic demands of the priesthood as films about musicians. Mumbai writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane (Court) opens with a shot of Guruji singing on stage before slowly pushing past him to focus on Sharad behind him on sitar, looking utterly enraptured by the performance. Though Sharad will face many humblings and crises of faith later, Tamhane connects to his genuine passion for classical vocals, and the way they undulate gracefully and intuitively around simple instrumentation. He knows that fortune doesn’t follow – the aging Guruji relies on him for treatments and the odd medical bill – but transcendence might.

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Yet Tamhane hits on a brutal yet universal truth: that you can work hard to pursue your dreams and simply do not have the talent to achieve them. No one is booing Sharad out of the building, but there are murmurs and tepid applause, and events where other singers get the nod over him. In one particularly humiliating moment, Guruji leans back toward him mid-performance to criticize his backing vocals. Meanwhile, he watches another classically trained singer hit it big on India’s American Idol equivalent by fusing traditional raga with broader pop sounds – which he regards as terrible desecration of the form while also seeing it with jealousy.

The signature sequences in The Disciple are these beautiful slow-motion shots of Sharad driving his motorcycle through the streets of Mumbai at night, remembering key passages from a scratchy old record about how to train as a classical singer. They remind him that his quest from him is an eternal one, not suited to a person who wants to make money or start a family – “Though music,” he recalls, “we are shown a path to the divine.” But Tamhane includes scenes of his hero from him as an older and heavier and no more accomplished man, playing to small, half-filled rooms where an elderly crowd is scattered around on plastic chairs. Whatever “the divine” looks like, this ain’t it.

Yet as sobering as Sharad’s journey often is, The Disciple isn’t about wallowing in failure, but about a man who’s forced to consider a different pathway for personal growth. A career in Indian classical music is a hard road even for the most resounding success, but even if it were lucrative, Sharad has to square up to a truth that nearly everyone faces: that there’s going to be someone – likely many someones – better than you at the thing you love doing the most. And it may be cosmically unfair if it comes as naturally to them as it does to the preening, childish teacher in Amadeus. What happens next is where a person’s character is really tested. In Tamhane’s profound, complicated drama, life lessons don’t come easy.

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