Credit: TIFF
by Lawrence Garcia Film

Best Films of 2021: The Disciple

January 8, 2022

#16. The burden of tradition makes itself felt throughout Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore feature, The Disciple. The story template is familiar: that of a striving artist — a young Indian classical musician, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) — haunted by the prospect of turning into his bitter failure of a father. But Tamhane’s meticulous, measured direction keeps our sense of the character and his own self-awareness ever out of sync. The film’s visual style — extreme wide-angle long shots and slow, near-imperceptible push-ins — gives every scene a certain autonomy, while maintaining a cool distance from the characters. Likewise, Tamhane finds a number of ways to unsettle what would otherwise be a too-neat trajectory, continually preventing us from uniting our expectations for Sharad’s life with his own outlook on it. After the film’s most (deliberately) generic scene — a quasi-dream sequence in which his greatest fears are voiced aloud — these perspectives come apart altogether.

If we previously felt we had a grasp on Sharad as a character (allowing for comedy), that impression becomes untenable, and he becomes progressively more inscrutable (allowing for tragedy). But it’s only during a very late, boldly placed flashback, to a music critic essentially shattering Sharad’s youthful illusions, that this becomes fully evident. Placed where it is, the scene brings into question all our previous judgments of Sharad, making it difficult to distinguish between a life of passive inertia and hard-won belief. For the viewer, any future interpretations of his actions can now be only tentative; it becomes impossible to regard him with comic or ironic detachment any longer. When the film leaps forward one final time, we find Sharad now married and a father, having abandoned his musical career to launch a company devoted to promoting North Indian classical music. It would be too simple, though, to take this conclusion as merely ironic. For us to distinguish despair from peace, resignation from quiet contentment, would be to make a judgment — one that no longer seems to have a place in the film. So while The Disciple starts out as a seemingly easy story about the futility of creative pursuit, it ends closer to the territory of John Williams’ Stoner, approximated by cinema’s naturally externalized viewpoint.