‘The Disciple’ review: a poignant quest for the perfect ‘khayal’

Perfection is a template created of a zenith standard that’s seemingly unachievable for anyone who sets out in its pursuit, by the people who claim to have achieved it, for the people who strain virtuously to achieve it. That standard is almost usually set and defined in the past, and rarely anyone seems to have seen it. But the myth of perfection perpetuates like a subterranean seismic spark, making its presence felt in mysterious, intangible ways, never definable, yet set as a benchmark. It is this vicious cycle of myth and its hopeless pursuit that keeps that gold standard of perfection out of reach for those who want to touch it the most.

Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) is one such musical pursuer in writer-editor-director Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi movie, The Disciple. Opening in the year 2006, Sharad, along with Tejas (Abhishek Kale) and Sneha (Deepika Bhide Bhagwat) forms the trio who accompany senior Hindustani classical vocalist and their Guruji, Pandit Vinayak Pradhan (Dr. Arun Dravid) on his stage shows, while steeping themselves into his music classes at his chawl-attached room in Dadar, modulating, breathing, and training to maneuver the treacherous tonal ravines to touch the improvised note that’ll deliver multiple peaks of a perfect khayal—a word that means ‘imagination’ in an etymological sense, but in Hindustani music, encompasses every nuance and Raag (a free-flowing yet defined framework for melodic improvisation) that this vast universe holds beneath its seemingly incomprehensible bosom. While Sneha and Tejas seem to be doing just fine, soaking in Guruji’s notes and treading those unknown and unlit paths, Sharad seems to struggle, unable to find his improvisational technique, unable to rise above his set boundaries. 

Arun Dravid, Aditya Modak: recital woes

Director Tamhane explores this unrelenting, seemingly unending journey that Sharad’s taken upon himself that begins to feel as if an act of quixotry, one that demands nothing short of renouncing the life that modern times have to offer. In exploring this vacuum-state of living that the pursuit of attaining vocal excellence demands, Sharad’s strung on a tight, steel-wire of life conflicts as everything and everyone around him seems to be moving on and ahead, while he sticks to the seemingly anachronistic guru-disciple format of musical learning, where the student devotes their youth and life to serving their guru, all the while training and picking up nuances and notes to embellish their singing. Is that tradition even feasible now? Sharad’s north star so far has been the lectures of Sindhubai or Maai (the late and great Sumitra Bhave lending a quasi-mysterious layer to her voice-over)— his guruji’s mentor and music teacher. Set to the hypnotic drone of the tanpura, her raspy, quavering voice exhorts an ascetic-like living, sacrificing all physical and worldly attachments to achieve that seeming chimera of a perfect rendition. But when Sharad and his colleague at the modest recording company he works— Kishore (Makarand Mukund)—meet up with famous music critic Rajan Joshi (Vanarese Prasad in a terrific cameo), is when Sharad—and you—face discomfiting questions. Is the legend of the mythical Maai, who never performed publicly, just a larger-than-life cut-out that her students have made of her? Is that how legends are made and their stories spun to spray them with a godly halo? What of Sharad’s guruji? Did he truly believe in Maai, the perennial price of which is a life in penury? How do such stories evolve and morph into Frankenstein proportions as they spread across generations and secluded meetings until they become gospels of truth? Who profits from these embellishments? 

Aditya Modak: the quest never ends.

Those aren’t the only questions that Tamhane throws at you. He strings his disciple’s life into another life-hook with reality musical show Fame India screening on the TV and Sharad watches haplessly as a contestant begins to ascend the glitzy stairway to the jackpot of fame, while his life and talent seem stuck in a groove. Ironically, while Sharad wears longer clothing for his onstage performances, the Fame India finalist Shaswati (Kristy Banerjee) sheds hers for jazzy outfits, sings even lesser, and performs more. All this while, Sharad’s contemporaries strike gold as well and the struggling disciple is left with notations of doubt and despair. Is the path of the purist a pyretic Fool’s Gold? Don’t all artists now concede to concert and commercial demands and throw in a medley of sorts that keeps the audience coming in? Don’t music students nurse an ambition of the commercial rather than doing riyaaz (practicing) in the shadows of a future that has “What could have been” as its umbra? As the movie harks back to his father (Kiran Yadnopavit), a Hindustani music aficionado, but perhaps not measuring up as much in talent, you begin wondering: is Sharad’s deep-rooted, self-flagellating, self-evaluated failure almost genetic in nature?

Aditya Modak’s Sharad makes a splash.

The director doesn’t answer anything for you, making his movie as much a heuristic experience as must be learning Hindustani classical. Using Michal Sobocinski’s soft, pause-filled cinematographic frames, Tamhane uses the camera to slowly zoom into Sharad every time another mini-disaster strikes his purist world. The scenes where he’s listening to Maai’s lectures are a beauty in slow-motion, his bike almost as if floating in meditation while Anita Kushwaha and Naren Chandavarkar’s impeccable sound design fills up your senses with the soft crackle and hiss of the stylus—itself in a sacrificial mode for every time it’s used—giving a bit of itself to the revolving vinyl. Composer Aneesh Pradhan’s score adds a layer of story-telling of its own, as every song captures Sharad’s journey of rigor and self-scouting for flawless rendition.

The cast is superb, their act more credible because each of them (who sing in the movie) are trained singers; Dr. Arun Dravid, a well-known music exponent (and himself the first ever disciple of the great Kishori Amonkar) in particular, lends an air of someone who’s faced an onslaught of a commercial stampede and is now the last person standing. And Aditya Modak is outstanding as the disciple. His act is a complex feature-map of angst, struggle, and questions. In his listening to Maai’s recordings, attempts to give up the sensual and turn meditatively inward, and constant trudge towards the perfect khayal, do you realize the futility of trying to achieve perfection—especially one that’s been defined elsewhere by someone else. You need to get off the turntable to fathom it has no absolutes, that it exists in a place and person you’d least expect to find it in. 

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. 
The Disciple is streaming on Netflix and rated A (For adults only) for moderate profanity and some self-gratification scenes.

The Disciple
Director Chaitanya Tamhane Time 2h 9min
Writer Chaitanya Tamhane
Stars Aditya Modak, Dr. Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave, Makarand Mukund, Kiran Yadnopavit
Genres Drama, Music