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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - THE DISCIPLE

the disciple review
An Indian classical vocalist struggles to reach his potential.


Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Chaitanya Tamhane

Starring: Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave, Kiran Yadnyopavit

the disciple poster





To become a master of your craft - or become insane - you have to be willing to do the same thing over and over again, to see different results. We see it all the time in films, from Jiro serving the perfect sushi roll for decades to Andrew Neiman drumming until his knuckles bleed. Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, which follows an Indian classical music vocalist striving to reach the level of his guru, is essentially only composed of two scenes - his performances and the commute home.

the disciple review

It seems like Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak, an expert vocalist in real life) doesn’t really get much sleep. Once he’s done with practising and performing with his classmates, under the tutelage of their guru (Arun Dravid, also an expert vocalist), he rides home on his bike at night, listening to the audio recordings of Maai, a grand master of raag who taught his father (a failed artist) and who left great notes guiding the next generations of performing artists. When Sharad is at home, he uses his spare time to record Maai’s tapes onto his computer. It’s the year 2006 so computers aren’t as fast (nor is texting on that Nokia brick), therefore the archiving process - and life in Mumbai, apparently - is rather slow.

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Sharad looks at his guru with such reverence as he performs, carefully studying how he performs so well at an old age - if you didn’t know, Indian classical music requires incredibly long, powerful utterances over a vast melodic pattern, so to be able to perform for decades at a high level is mighty impressive. Sharad also pays attention to how his mentor conditions himself, but fears for the future when the guru falls ill. Preparing for a future where he’ll lead the vocals in a group performance, the protagonist has an existential crisis about if he’s ever going to reach the same heights as his predecessor.

the disciple review

There’s a point where the 24-year-old Sharad says to his guru, "I practise all day then I get angry with myself." It's the millennial in him, impatient about not seeing the results he wants due to an inability to recognise that things take time, even when you work on them every day. His guru responds "We didn't think of anything except practise until we were 40!" But the internal struggle continues as the years go by, and this idea that one can never make it in their creative pursuit is a terribly relatable one, even when we’re reminded of tales such as how Samuel L. Jackson was a journeyman until his mid-forties, or how the mixed media artist Louise Bourgeois only gained fame when she was 78.

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Of course, turning to such anecdotes for inspiration can distort one’s perspective, and certainly the level of success of the raag icons is tough for Sharad to reconcile. It reminds me a little of Inside Llewyn Davis, in how the artist essentially finds himself in a groundhog day. It doesn't always make for the most gripping drama, especially considering Tamhane's stilled storytelling style (long, static shots, real-time sequences, a dry production design) but it's engaging enough. Plus, the amazing ending emphatically punctuates the central theme.

the disciple review

For the London Film Festival press screenings, The Disciple was paired with Mogul Mowgli and The Painter and the Thief, two films that are generally more interesting, especially in how they've been crafted, but all equally interesting in their perspectives of artists contending with their identity.

The Disciple plays online as part of the BFI London Film Festival on October 7th.




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