The Disciple by Chaitanya Tamhane is one of those films I enjoyed tremendously till it reached the very end. I was teased to sit down and watch the film by a sumptuous starter of Indian classical music. This was followed by a decadent and satisfying main course of the journey of the musician. At the very end, however, I was served up a dessert of herbal bitter jelly that left a bad aftertaste in my mouth.
Do ‘artists’ get their kicks off mocking other people’s efforts and accomplishments? The more art house films I watch, the more the answer is a ‘Yes’. What The Disciple accomplishes very successfully is making a mockery of both success and failure; of belittling both critical acclaim as well as commercial success.
It is criticism par excellence.
The Stereotypical Character
Sharad Nerulkar is a stereotypical character who has devoted his life to becoming an Indian classical music vocalist. He diligently follows the traditions and discipline of old masters, his teacher and his father. But as time goes by, and as ‘success’ remains elusive, Sharad wonders if it’s actually possible to achieve the excellence he’s striving for.
The ‘excellence’ he is striving for, however, remains a mystery. We are not told what he is striving for. Is it commercial success? Is it a perfection of his craft? Is it knowledge he is seeking? We are not told. We are only told that he’s been doing it for a long time and that ‘success’–be it commercial profit or critical acclaim–is nowhere to be found.
Sharad hates that one might be appreciated for simply pandering to the meandering likes and dislikes of a popular audience. While it seems that he is attracted by the allure of a wider audience, it becomes starkly obvious that that is not his path.
When it comes to the genre of tragedy, we are left with a sense that all our efforts are futile. We are doomed to inevitably reach a bitter ending with no hope for redemption.
Do our lives fit so neatly into these stereotypes that are created for the purpose of an ideological narrative? Do we feel uplifted after watching films such as this one?
To me, good art is a celebration of life. It implores the viewer to remember that all is possible. If all art does is mock life, then what we are left with is a cutting and biting criticism that makes us feel that our efforts are not worthwhile.
This will lead us to believe that all our efforts are futile and that we needn’t bother at all.
But that’s not life, is it?
The Heart of the Story
At the heart of the story lays the love of music as exemplified by its various characters.
The scenes where Indian classical music is sung leave the viewer with a thirst to discover more about the art form. From those who study music for pleasure, to those who do it professionally–music is what ties these seemingly ‘different’ cast of characters together.
From buskers, to maestros, to those who write about music even if they do not play it–it is music; and not success or failure as defined by the narrow lens of commercial success or critical acclaim–that lays at the heart of this story.
To draw our attention only to the plight of an artist who in need of recognition or money for the art that he practices is trite.
Music is ultimately a journey where many must come together on a train to different destinations.