Sat. Oct 24th, 2020

NYFF Review: Passion and performance shine in Chaitanya Tamhane’s ‘The Disciple’

Children think anything and everything is possible. Kids possess the ability to picture a future in which they are astronauts, professional athletes, presidents, rockstars, and kajillionaires. Dreams are a part of everyday life. As time wears on, most of these children shift in their thinking, focusing in on smaller goals and less exciting dreams. Get a job. Find a decent apartment. Pay credit card bills on time. Provide for a family. A few still follow these childhood ambitions, though, taking their aspirations through adulthood, turning them into passions and [hopefully] careers. Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature, The Disciple, looks at a child-turned-adult who has held onto his dream of being a classical singer, following in his father’s footsteps.

His first feature, Court, covered another role that music plays in Indian culture. Tamhane turns inward in his newest, with a story of a young man in three distinct stages of his life, from boyhood to young adulthood to an age when dreams reach a breaking point. Sharad (first-time actor Aditya Modak) pursues this goal with intensity throughout the film, spending his days practicing alone, caring for his sickly, older musical mentor, and performing to less-than-enthused crowds. In many ways, his life is simple. He goes about his tasks with a quiet intensity. He has no plans of getting a “real job” despite the protests from his family. Sharad hopes to live a life similar to his father’s, yet with more success, becoming frustrated when those compare him with his original, deceased mentor. The young man needs to be good at this art form, yet, as his current teacher asks him, “Why are you restless?” He has no answer.

Tamhane’s film uses flashbacks to show aspects of Sharad’s childhood, one spent on long train rides to sunrise concerts, memory tests of Khayal Hindustani hymns, and tape recordings of those that came long before him. Sharad rarely leaves the echo of the past, listening to the words of legendary singer Maii as he rides his motorbike around the city, attempting to ingest her words instead of passively listening. He, like many of us in our mid-20s, doesn’t have it figured out. None of it makes sense to him; the music, the riffs, the daily chores, the lack of success, and the endless path that he’s chosen to pursue. He spends his nights watching YouTube videos of himself and other young performers, perusing the comments to fight those that degrade his art. Respite comes through later-night porn viewings, and by his facial expressions, even these experiences become joyless. Routine, when not coupled with growth, sucks the joy right out of Sharad.

Mustached and now a musical teacher, Sharad continues his journey years later, still performing with newcomers and watching others pass him by, especially on India’s version of American Idol, a constant reminder of his non-achievement of his goals. In time, he realizes he doesn’t have the talent to be great, or even memorable. It’s an unfortunate understanding that all of us have gone through one time or another. We likely won’t become astronauts or athletes or rockstars. Very few do. Sharad spends the first 40 or so years of life bucking that idea, hoping that he’s different, hoping that he’s special, as we all do. He dedicates his life to one specific goal, a niche one at that. Tamhane’s film explores what happens when someone finally acknowledges that a dream isn’t fulfillable. It’s about acceptance of the direction of your life, and questioning of the years you worked to achieve the now-impossible. For Sharad, it’s heart-shattering. For us, it’s memory-inducing. 

It’s an abrupt ending for the musician. It reminds us of the fragility of dreams, and how a crackling fire can dwindle inside of you. Music won’t leave his life, but his passion is replaced with practicality, stability, and common forms of forward-motion. The film suffers from the pacing and monotony of Sharad’s life, but The Disciple doesn’t cut corners. It shows you the depths of his passion, the frustration he encounters, and the sacrifice made in this man’s pursuit of perfection. Sharad isn’t one of those children that lives out their dreams. In that regard, he’s as relatable as any person we’ve seen in film. 

This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival.

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