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This weekend we’re watching: The quest for aesthetic greatness

This weekend we’re watching: The quest for aesthetic greatness
'The Disciple' (Image courtesy of Netflix)

‘The Disciple’ is a melancholy character study of a boy with unfulfilled ambitions to be recognised as a master of Indian classical music. Its subtle realism is as absorbing as its transcendent soundtrack.

As The Disciple wakes from sleeping black with the resonance of a tanpura, those who are not familiar with the North Indian classical tradition known as Hindustani music will immediately be struck by the mystical quality of its elaborate undulations.

The smooth, round rubbing and nimble pattering of the tablas, and the ambiguous twangs of the sitar, playful and curious, are as unpredictable as the erratic, often wordless improvisation of the vocalist. It’s usually performed sitting, creating a calm environment conducive to intense performances and an engaged audience.

The Disciple is directed uncompromisingly by Chaitanya Tamhane. There’s a confidence in his slow realism – he is comfortable with lingering silence and allows the performances time to breath. Instead of spoon-feeding through dialogue, he utilises his talent for visual communication, rooting a huge amount of his storytelling in achingly subtle changes in facial expressions.

At an intimate concert we zoom in on Sharad, the young man playing the tanpura who is clearly in awe of his guru’s acrobatic, emotive voice. In less than a minute of performing, through merely the movement of his face, we are able to observe Sharad’s innermost thoughts oscillate between inspiration, humility, jealousy, fear that he will never be a great maestro, determination, and solemn despondence.

We are immediately invested in Sharad’s success. He is passionate and idealistic, but he lacks self-belief. Having been pushed into music at a tender age by his father, Sharad was taught to revere the ascetics and saints of the Hindustani musical tradition, particularly Maai, the radical legendary maestra who his father studied under.

Sharad is acted by Aditya Modak who is primarily a classical Indian musician, who trained in acting for the role – Tamhane was determined to do it that way around so that the lead would be able to relate to the fear and pressures experienced by aspiring practitioners of such a technical genre of music.

Sharad chases his ambitions as a vocalist with tunnel-vision. He is so desperate to fulfil his father’s wishes for him that his approach to his music has become detached and devoid of joy. The romantic memories of his childhood exposure to classical music are seen through a dazzling haze, while his life as a young adult seems increasingly dingy.

When we seek to achieve something, we keep at it with the belief that hard work and pure intentions lead to success – it’s the moral of a thousand stories and parents and teachers drill the idea into their children; and yet we have all at some point experienced the disappointment of pouring one’s heart and soul into something, and still coming up short.

Faced with failure despite one’s sincerest efforts, a person will search for an explanation that fits inside the optimistic narrative of passion + effort = success. Maybe the audience doesn’t understand your genius; maybe the judges have something against you; or maybe you’re just not working hard enough. Only when all these rationalisations are debunked does one consider the possibility that the encouraging formula for success might be flawed – that sometimes, life simply isn’t fair.

Sharad’s tale of devotion to his craft reminds one of films like Whiplash and Black Swan. The arts are a seductive mistress with unrealistic expectations, and she leaves many an unsung genius (pun intended) in her wake. Just because you love her does not mean she will necessarily love you back, and the frustration of being denied recognition can turn a person sour, or worse, it can harden them until they lose themselves.

‘The Disciple’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

‘The Disciple’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

‘The Disciple’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

‘The Disciple’ (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The standout scenes in The Disciple are slow-motion shots of Sharad riding his bike alone through the streets of Mumbai at night. These scenes are overlaid with foreboding words of wisdom from lectures delivered by Maai – deeply philosophical and radical ramblings on the sacredness of music and the pursuit of the aesthetic. Maai’s profound advice echoes in Sharad’s mind like mantras, reassuring him despite his lack of success.

…“There’s a reason why Indian classical music is considered an eternal quest. And in order to embark on that quest, you will have to surrender and sacrifice. If you want to walk this path, learn to be lonely and hungry.”…

These scenes take on a meditative quality, entrancing in their tranquillity, but they are also repetitive, and eventually tedious. They reflect the slow progress of Sharad’s tiresome “eternal quest”, but they do also simply put you to sleep a little.

The exquisite soundtrack is reason enough to watch The Disciple, but its most valuable contribution is a masterful character study of an aspiring artist in which the tedium of the quest for greatness is approached with an honesty that is seldom admitted. That this tedium is mirrored by the length of the film and the generous editing is not a flaw, but it does mean that the film is best suited to an engaged viewer with an appreciation for detail.

For the most part, The Disciple is a sorrowful journey, but that does not mean it is necessarily depressing. It ends with a brutal anti-climax, but there is also a sense of acceptance of the things we fall short of and an appreciation of our craft that is not contingent on the recognition of others. DM/ ML

The Disciple is available in South Africa on Netflix.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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