The Disciple‘s diptych structure creates a mature, nuanced portrait of the weight of personal and professional compromise.
Sharad Nerulkar — the titular disciple in Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore feature — is, by most accounts, unexceptional. He’s devoted his life to archiving, preserving, and, most importantly to him, practicing and performing classical Indian vocal music that’s considered outdated and inert by most contemporary standards. It’s the kind of music that he’s consistently reminded will never reward him with such trivialities as fortune or success, and that he should instead be performing devotional songs if he wants to be famous. But this type of behavior would be regarded as “selling out” by his mentors (as would engaging in any form of popular artistry that might risk even a measure of commerciality), a cardinal sin for those who worship a certain ethos and abide an authenticity that, as Sharad’s father — a well-known “raag” singer and promoter from years past — puts it, “doesn’t exist,” and probably never did. A generous reading might suggest sincerity and fervor about one’s art existing outside of cultural hegemony and consumption; a more cynical and frequently accurate assessment would be to ascribe this to arrogant pride that’s fostered and promoted within smaller art scenes to make up for a lack of financial resources and critical recognition. For Sharad, it’s supreme confidence that spurs him on (as it does many young, stubborn artists) as he continues in his pursuit of a career that seemingly no one else understands. He competes in local community contests during his spare time, practicing for weeks just for the opportunity to sit patiently (and apathetically) as the third, second, and first prizes are all called without uttering his name. Meanwhile, his mother and aunt chastise him for making “peanuts” working at a niche, boutique music label that barely makes back licensing fees.
An arc begins to develop with Sharad, one that resonates with anyone who’s spent time and energy on a passion that didn’t provide financial compensation immediately, if ever. It’s a vulnerable trajectory of impending rejection, wherein he pushes forward in the hope that one day his talents pay off in some form of personal satisfaction — add to this the grind of everyday existence, which likewise rubs against his ambitions through the years. It’s here where The Disciple functions best as a meditative, ambitious rumination on the tensions and frictions that consume one’s creative life. Much like the framework of a classical raag, the film is structured both formally and narratively around variations on the same abortive theme — it also employs a contemplative editing rhythm that matches the raag’s slow-moving meter — one that builds into a grueling cyclicality; by repeating certain visual and thematic motifs regarding Sharad’s fruitless efforts, Tamhane is able to isolate and accentuate the dread that slowly develops when something that once brought you joy now brings nothing but pain. Lovers abandon him, he’s forced to take a job teaching music at a local school, and his family’s apprehension starts to become more understandable — The Disciple’s second half, which skips forward about ten years in time, evinces how little his dedication has brought him.
While Tamhane never explicitly states that the first 50 minutes or so takes place in the past (there’s a few minor signifiers: Sharad uses a flip-phone to text his girlfriend he’s sorry after a small squabble, for example), by framing the narrative as a diptych, employing two distinct tonal and thematic modes — youthful naiveté and beleaguered compliance — the full weight of Sharad’s choices becomes easily discernible. We witness him a decade later: older, balder, more portly, still masturbating to the same porn, and still toiling away at a craft his colleagues have long abandoned for more rewarding lives singing music that wasn’t exclusively popular several centuries ago. He cares for his aging guru, unable to care for himself (the obvious financial burden of creative autonomy), and now also unable to live off the elitist prestige he once held. To Sharad — and to many others like him, who continue to find ways to pursue their grand passions, even if their originals plans didn’t pan out (spoiler: they almost never do) — this is the future that might be endured if ambitions are pursued, one filled with precarity and endless self-doubt. He decides on something different by The Disciple’s second time-jump (thankfully, this one not as long), and it’s a choice that doesn’t feel cheap or unearned. Sharad recognizes he’s unexceptional, ultimately bringing him some form of the satisfaction he’s been craving his entire life. Tamhane, like his protagonist, understands that compromise is sometimes the only acceptable — and the most difficult — option in moving forward with one’s life.
You can stream Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple on Netflix beginning on April 30.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 3.