FILM REVIEW: The Disciple – BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Chaitanya Tamhane

To be a veritable singer of Indian classical music, a maestro explains, one must learn to be lonely and hungry. And while in The Disciple we don’t quite see determined musician Sharad hungry, we often see him as a solitary figure, battling alone with his demons, and his loneliness is intensified by director Chaitanya Tamhane’s static camera shots which never get close enough to the subject.

At first Tamhane’s refusal to provide close ups of Sharad’s face is annoying, and the strategy demands extra attention of the viewer who must find him in the busy shots, either sitting crossed- leg on a stage accompanying his guru in a recital, or in an audience waiting to see if he has won an award for his singing. But the viewer can never get close enough, and so Sharad is a distant, often cold, figure.

Sharad is part of the khayal tradition where singers interpret short songs called bandishes in their own individual ways, moving up and down octaves. Although it’s a relatively new tradition, beginning in the early 18th century, khayal is on the decline, and as the film moves from 2006 to the present day and even into the future Sharad plays to fewer and fewer people, the halls now peppered with empty seats. But it seems that interest in khayal has always been in decline and, as Sharad’s father explains, rarely did any of the best singers of the genre record for prosperity. The film is haunted by a great singer, Maai, who, rather than recording her songs, left instead instructions on how to perform them.

Sharad listens to these instructions as he motorbikes through Mumbai during the night, trying to finesse his voice, and carry on the family tradition, but as it becomes clear, Sharad’s father only wrote about khayal: he was never good enough to sing it. Failed dreams and self-doubt seep deep into this film, and the music itself echoes the melancholy and the yearning. The static camera shots now seem the perfect way to capture this desolation of nostalgia.

Aditya Modak is a compelling Sharad, always remaining as detached as the camera shots, although his face gives glimpses of the frustration he feels in pursuing this impossible career. He watches, blank of all emotion, India’s version of the X-Factor where singers are propelled and manufactured into ephemeral sensations while he himself fails to get noticed. Equally as good is Arun Dravid who plays Guruji, Sharad’s tough but aging mentor, who now has to perform out of necessity to earn money to pay the doctor’s bills. Dravid’s performance is brittle and fragile.

Despite the references to glitzy TV talent shows, Disciple thankfully doesn’t take the same journey as Fame India’s contestants. The maestro explains that asceticism must be practised in order to be a truly great khayal singer, and this film, too, is a lesson in austerity, where normal cinematic pleasures – love, excitement, success – are muted, but The Disciple is a better film for it.

Perhaps the film should finish five minutes before it actually does, but it would be a brave director to end on such a note at Sharad’s final concert. This is only Tamhane’s second feature, but like khayal The Disciple is full of ancient wisdom and lingering sadness.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 runs from 7 to 18 October

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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