New York Film Fest 2020 Review: A Fear of Mediocrity is Expressed Masterfully in Chaitanya Tamhane’s “The Disciple”

The Disciple
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There hasn’t been anything quite like Chaitanya Tamhane’s transcendent drama “The Disciple,” but it doesn’t arrive without precedent. In recent years, the likes of the Coen Brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Mia Hansen-Love (“Eden”) have turned to music to explore the frustrations of artists coming to realize they may never be anything more than mediocre, their skills and luck simply nowhere near the level of their dedication and ambition – the irony, of course, being that it takes the perspective and ability of someone great to recognize this so clearly.

The director of “Court” adds his name to that list for reasons beyond taking on a similar subject in “The Disciple,” an absorbing character study of Sherad (Aditya Modak), a singer intent on continuing the tradition of classical Indian music, which is largely confined in modern times to small concerts when so much of it went unrecorded and it has largely fallen out of favor in the mainstream. At first, it appears Sherad is pursuing a noble cause, learning from an old master Guruji (Dr. Arun Dravid), who he accompanies musically at concerts and tends to his aching joints after, and digitizing what rare recordings he can get his hands on to preserve them, but the dedication starts to look a lot more like selfishness as calls from his mother go unreturned and he can be quite brusque with anyone who thinks differently about the music or its place in his life than he does, including his aunt who has taken him in with less and less affection offered in return.

Unfortunately the only voices Sherad truly respects passed away long ago, namely his father who bequeathed his single-minded love of Raags to his son, for better or worse, and Maai, an almost mythological singer who was never seen performing publicly when she believed it would compromise the soulfulness of her songs, but was illicitly recorded once during a private lecture speaking about her lofty musical principles, a possession that becomes biblical to the impressionable young musician. Tamhane only subtly differentiates what is happening in the past and present when the two are so intertwined in Sherad’s mind, but just 26 when we first meet him, it’s not like Sherad actually has the life experience to fully understand the history, a fact that seeps into his musicianship which may be technically proficient, but never comes alive when he knows nothing more than the notes. The film leaps forward to when he is 34 and has students of his own, yet it quickly becomes clear he’s learned little in the intervening years to change his ways.

Tamhane walks a fine line in refusing to give Sherad much sympathy when his hold on history becomes a shield for dealing with the present, but acknowledges when his lead isn’t entirely wrong about what should hold value from the past and is worth fighting for, even when a majority of the culture has decided to move on. There’s a stark contrast between how hard Sherad makes life for himself and how effortlessly the writer/director captures the complexities of his stubbornness, gradually revealing how toxic Maai’s ideas are when it comes to artistic purity, strangling the music she claims to emerge from her soul when she places so many strict rules around it, and how such conservatism has reared its ugly head into every aspect of his life. Modak delivers a truly remarkable performance, not only convincingly playing the musician across his formative years, but brilliantly expressing how he takes in and processes influence, and for as much as his transformation is an internal one, reflected as well in Michal Sobocinski’s gorgeously composed still frames, every scene simmers with the passion that Sherad may not know best what to do with, but Tamhane surely does.