The Disciple 2020 02

A master and his student attempt to reach raga music perfection in this hypnotic Indian drama

The Disciple follows Sharad (Aditya Modak) through three stages of his life, as a young boy and a man at ages 24 and 36, as he dedicates himself to mastering a form of Indian classical singing and the teachings of his elderly guru played by Arun David. It is the second feature film from Mumbai director Chaitanya Tamhane and shows the city through the eyes of its middle classes and at a relaxed pace rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

Raga music is a type of melody where a singer improvises over drums and a drone. The music in this film was a hard one for me to crack with my untrained Western ear, as there is no real european classical equivalent to the Indian raag it was very unfamiliar to me. I felt sure I was failing to appreciate the genius of the musical ”masters” shown performing and was not fully understanding where Sharad was going wrong when his teacher and his audiences were telling him he was singing badly.

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However whether you are educated in it or not, the music in this film is unforgettable. Nearly every scene is permeated by undulating vocals, droning strings and tabla drumming that is mesmerising, almost meditative in its nature. Some scenes of the film are almost dreamlike, and the sedate pace of the film combined with the hypnotic music can certainly lull you into a deep relaxation (or near enough sleep in my case…)

Whilst the music may be ”foreign” to the Western viewer, the story of the struggling musician is certainly a universal one that can be applied to pretty much any genre or artform. We see young Sharard be given lofty spiritual ideals about music and slowly and surely start to question them all as he grows older. He learns that his deeply admired father (also a musician) was considered to be untalented by his teacher. The teacher he considers his guru is written off by others as being pretentious. He fights the urge to write rude replies to commenters on his YouTube videos and guiltily watches the Indian equivalent of X-Factor with clear jealousy for the contestants success. And time and time again he questions if he will ever truly achieve the celebrated greatness of his master or if he simply does not have the talent – the nagging self doubt that any life long artist waiting for their big break has surely felt.

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I found the film satisfyingly familiar in the end despite it’s initial musical culture shock – though it’s exceedingly slow pace and niche subject matter did make me feel it is unlikely to be appreciated by the casual viewer. For those with a deeper appreciation for world music and the people who master it – a rare dream.

The Disciple got it’s UK premiere today at the BFI London Film Festival

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