The Disciple Review: Simply Magical!

The student

Author-director: Chaitanya Tamhane

Occupation: Aditya Modak, Dr. Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave

Streaming on: Netflix

Chaitanya Tamhane, a young filmmaker, made headlines a few years ago when his directorial debut Court (2014) won several awards at renowned international film festivals and won the National Award for the best feature film in India. It was one of the most realistic and poignant films I had ever seen. The filmmaker then did a master protégé program with filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron while the writer did his masterpiece Roma (2019) – what an experience that could have been. One can only imagine that.

Tamhane’s second feature, The Disciple, released on Netflix, is a character study of a classic Hindustani singer, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak). Tamhane observes this singer’s struggles and the music itself through wide-angle shots – which is only possible if you are immersed in the world. I wonder if the wide-angle shots where you can’t really see the actors’ faces symbolize how small and insignificant we are in the bigger picture of this world. The pupil is a poetry of life and has its own film language. Every movement of the camera tells a story. The effects of working on Roma’s sets are evident. This is of course intended as a compliment.

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Each frame is a painting (DOP Michał Sobociński and the production designers Pooja Talreja & Ravin D. Karde). The film is set in Mumbai, but you see the city like never before. The lonely bike rides Sharad goes on late into the night, listen to tapes of a legend of Hindustani classical music respectfully called Maai (voiced by the late filmmaker Sumitra Bhave) – string the entire film together. There are two types of audience, one that watches films the same way as films and one and two that try to find their own part in the film. If you’re of the latter type, you may feel like Maai is talking to you. It’s the poetry of life. It’s bitter. And that makes it great.

I don’t understand classical music, but I’ve always loved it. It takes decades of commitment to achieve greatness in it. As Sharad’s Guruji (Dr. Arun Dravid) tells him that he was recognized as early as his forties. Maai also warns in her tapes that one must learn to be alone and hungry if one wants to tread this path. Music by Aneesh Pradhan and sound design by Naren Chadavarkar and Anita Kushwaha are fascinating. Tamhane also wrote and edited the film. The dialogue is natural but sounds lyrical, even to a Maharashtrian like me it felt like being introduced to the mother tongue in a new way.

Watch the trailer for The Disciple here:

The disciple records Sharad’s life from childhood through his forties. This is not a hero’s journey. It’s just the opposite. The realism in Tamhane’s two films is brutal. You can’t just keep going after you’ve seen his movies. It will surely make you think and possibly bother you. In one of the interviews, Alfonso Cuaron said that Chaitanya is a rare generation of filmmakers. He’s certainly a master at making it. I am excited to see what he does next. The student is streaming on Netflix. Make sure you see it.

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