(Readers’ submissions: Celebrating one year of the Indigenous Blog)
By Rohit Saha
“Music…is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve?“Vikram Seth, An Equal Music.
A train compartment. A kid is sleeping while leaning on to his father as the father discusses the hit-and-miss nature of a renowned singer’s performance— they are on their way to attend his early morning concert in Pune. He proclaims that the inconsistency in Guruji’s singing is the true mark of a genius as the half-drowsy boy wakes up to ask, “What raga will he sing today?” Such is the robust nature of mythical asceticism around, that it engulfs the boy’s consciousness in a trance-like way.
Chaitanya Tamhane, as we know by now from his work, has this unique fascination of telling an extremely personal story while using a niche subculture (Here, Indian classical music) as the medium. At one level, The Disciple (2020) is a story of the eternal quest for perfection, at another level, it’s the frustration of seeing lesser artists being celebrated by the mass, and ultimately a terrifying and suffocating tale for anyone who is pursuing greatness at something but is marred with self-doubt and is unaware of his own place in the world. Tamhane investigates this by keeping ample directorial distance from the protagonist Sharad, almost entirely shooting him from a wide mid or long shot. The only exception is the very first scene where the camera is tracking into Sharad with full glory on his face as he plays the tanpura – in contrast to the other instrumentalist, one can see him clearly in awe of his guru , and at the very onset, one understands that this person might be more of a follower than a genius.
Tamhane realistically captures the zeitgeist of the esoteric subculture and weaves a universal story of the shattering dreams of a mediocre artist while calling out the many myths surrounding the pursuit of any art form in an attempt to almost set up the journey of Sharad as a cautionary tale for fellow journeymen. The flashbacks of Sharad’s idealistic father introducing him to this heritage and Maai’s haunting voiceover on sacrifice, divinity and self-righteousness recorded many years ago becomes a part of Sharad’s consciousness while he tries to perfect his craft and increasingly question his own talent. As Maai says, “Saints and ascetics have attained this music after thousands of years of rigorous spiritual pursuits. It cannot be learnt so easily….” and his own Guruji throws at him rhetorical questions, “why are you stuck?”, Sharad dedicates himself to more practice and later goes on to ask himself, what if someone is just not talented enough? The film cleverly subverts the dynamic between Guru and Disciple as we later understand that Guruji never shatters his delusion of making it because he is dependent on him or maybe it is never a Guru’s job to discourage an earnest Disciple. Maai talks about attaining abstract ideas like Purity and Truth in Art, attaining which becomes a maddening obsession for Sharad though he doesn’t understand what those words exactly mean, except the fact that sacrifice and discipline promise the gift he yearns for. There is no scope for the spirituality of imperfection which is more interested in questions than in answers, more a journey toward humility than a struggle for perfection, because trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake. Maai says, “Technique is merely a medium to express your inner feeling. Technique can be taught but Truth cannot. For that, you must have the strength to look inwards with unflinching honesty”, but Sharad is all about nourishing his technique as his perception of music is triggered by anecdotes and fascination for idols rather than discovering new nuances and the soul of a raga— thus, he is unable to master the craft of khayal which demands complete submission of one’s state of mind. Excelling in any art form, especially Indian classical music, involves luck and hereditary talent, and it is bound to make someone like Sharad insecure, and thus the facade of suffering (from self-inflicting pain or torture from the Guru) becomes his only feasible intermediate to reach greatness.
Sharad gets infected with disillusionment just like his father, who had a very tunnel-visioned childhood. Internally, he feels that but is scared to acknowledge what would result in the end of his dream— thus, he doesn’t want to be associated with his mediocre father and doesn’t post a comment responding to a stranger criticizing the lack of soul is his presentation of ragas. He can’t attain the spirituality of the saints or the gods, because he suffers from what the philosopher-psychologist William James called Zerrissenheit or ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’. As his Negative Capability kicks in, we see him hearing Maai’s tapes, addressing and validating him, thus making us question his sanity as a reliable narrator. The film’s most masterful scene comes when a young and still hopeful Sharad meets a veteran critic who debunks all his myths surrounding Maai and Guruji. Sharad feels discomfort while listening but still persuades the hesitant critic to spill the beans as he wants to confirm the reservations about his idols that had already nested in him. The camera zooms in on his heartbroken face as it slowly pushes the critic completely out of the frame. Sharad is shattered to hear that his idol Maai was not a good person and his Guruji, a mediocre single – people who have only pretended to be mythical and idealistic figures. It’s an insult to his perception of them, and tough to come to terms with the fact that he has been pushed into worshiping this legacy, despite knowing he was not good enough. When the scene finally reaches crescendo, Sharad throws the lemon juice on the critic’s face, and at that moment, we irrevocably know that this person won’t ever make it because he is more into worshipping his idols and imitating them than the internal quest of mastering the art form. And Tamhane makes a very personal point – for all of us who, in some capacity want to reach excellence by mechanically and obsessively perfecting the craft because we know there’s a historical legacy to it, but are inherently limiting ourselves to mimicking our idols.
Sharad finally grows out of his idols’ shadows, donates Maai’s cassettes, and leaves his artistic persona completely. He clings on to his idealism and does not get sold out to commercial singing though his eyes are glued to a much lesser performer but now popular reality show participant as he contemplates his life choices. Later, we see the older Sharad, now smoking in desolate streets of Mumbai and we instantly know this is not the 24-year-old aspiring artist who would refuse alcohol and cold water – this is a Dreamer who gave up. He shifts from riding his bike on desolate streets to taking crowded trains – he has quit his lonely pursuit and is now a part of the disenchanted mass. Aditya Modak’s non-verbal and internalized presence makes us wonder whether the older Sharad is still living in paradox and existential crisis, regretting his decision to quit early and if he still believes that he should have made it. But Tamhane subtly critiques the Brahminical and elitist hegemony of Indian classical music in the final scene, where the older Sharad looks at an artist singing on the train to make ends meet. Quest for purity and excellence is an elitist whim, if you aren’t privileged enough, your talent will merely be able to fill your plate if you are lucky, and you can’t even dream to get accepted into the Elite ghettos of Artists. Sharad promptly looks away.
Rohit Saha is Literature Major from North Bengal who is inquisitive about anything & everything- from Faiz to Fitzgerald. He writes on cinema in several journals and identifies as a reluctant writer.