Aditya Modak plays an aspiring Hindustani classical musician in “The Disciple.”

Only so-so at your chosen path? ‘The Disciple’ offers a relatable journey.

Does a movie about a devoted modern-day practitioner of Hindustani classical music sound overly esoteric? “The Disciple,” written and directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, is anything but. What it’s really about is the spiritual balm that great art can provide.

Sharad (Aditya Modak) is a 24-year-old vocalist in the ancient tradition who studies and performs with his longtime musical guru, or Guruji (Arun Dravid). Like his father before him in this rarefied realm, he craves renown for his artistry. But Sharad’s father (Kiran Yadnyopavit) died without achieving recognition and, although his ambitions are high, Sharad seems bound for the same path. Hearing him perform in the musical competitions he never wins, it’s clear he has talent, not greatness.

But this is not intended as a movie about what a genius must endure on the path to success. Sharad’s story is much more relatable than that. By the end of the film, he must come to terms with the fact that he feels deeply for an art form he can never come close to mastering. This realization is filled with rue, and yet there is a measure of wisdom in his uneasy acceptance of its verdict.

Why We Wrote This

The pursuit of a career in performance can lead to success – or mediocrity. In the film “The Disciple,” a devotee of Hindustani classical music comes to terms with his abilities in a way that’s relatable to us all.

A fair share of heartbreak precedes this revelation. Sharad lives an almost ascetic existence, unhappily sharing a home in Mumbai, India, with his worrying grandmother (Neela Khedkar) and working a meager day job reissuing tapes of old and neglected Hindustan musicians. He has no real friends, no girlfriends, no hobbies. Whatever physical pleasure he allows himself is only briefly glimpsed. At night, he drives around the city on his motorbike listening on his earphones to the secretly taped lectures of the late, legendary Maai (voiced by Sumitra Bhave), a singer whose fabled performances were never recorded and who taught both Guruji and his father. “Learn to be lonely and hungry,” she says.

Sharad imagines himself her spiritual heir but no matter how cloistered he aspires to be, the workaday world he inhabits doesn’t allow for that. It’s a world where East-meets-West commercialization reigns. We see him watch an “American Idol”-like TV show where a shy young Mumbai girl, singing in the traditional style, is the unexpected winner. Later on he witnesses, with quiet disgust, TV clips of her rise to Bollywood-style fame. Sharad’s disgust is almost too pure, and writer-director Tamhane, although he may share some of Sharad’s antipathy, recognizes this. As fierce as his passion for traditional music is, there is also something limiting and punitive about Sharad’s disdain for any culture he deems lesser – in other words, for just about everything.

Sharad knows that classical Hindustani music, with its mellifluous, dissonant tonal shifts and improvisations, has never been a popular art form in India. Certainly not in modern times. He is standing up for an ancient art that his generation is untouched by.  

When the film jumps ahead some years, we see Sharad caring for his ailing Guruji and making his living teaching traditional music to high schoolers. In a particularly piercing sequence, one of his students, accompanied by his mother, asks Sharad’s permission to join a Western-classical fusion band. He quickly acquiesces but then adds, if this happens, to not come back. Elsewhere, during an arranged get-together, a cynical music critic (wonderfully played by Prasad Vanarse) casually punctures the myths of Sharad’s idols. Sharad throws a drink in his face. Humbled by circumstance, he is still enraptured by his illusions.

By the end, we can see that Sharad has made a kind of peace with his station in life. He’s married, with a young daughter, and seeing them together and happy is a kind of gift. Some things, the movie seems to be saying, are even more important than art. In the film’s closing shot, Sharad and his family are traveling by train as a young busker, singing traditional songs, moves through the compartment. It’s the perfect finale to all that has come before.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “The Disciple,” available on Netflix, is in the Marathi language with English subtitles. It’s rated TV-MA, for mature audiences.

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