Review: ‘The Disciple’ is already one of the year’s best movies. Really does Netflix know — or even care?
Early in “The Disciple, ” a brilliantly constructed, rigorously intelligent new movie from the Indian writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane, a young man called Sharad (Aditya Modak) rests at a table offering rare musical treasures for sale. Nobody takes much interest or notice. Sifting idly through the CDs on display, a potential customer says he’s never heard about any of these artists, to which Sharad replies with a true believer’s conviction: “Yes, sir, however they are as good as the popular names. ” You can feeling him holding back: Exactly what he’d probably like to say is that they’re possibly better than the famous names, that their lack of widespread recognition may in fact have something to do with the exceptional quality of their work.
That’s an assumption rooted in familiar and endlessly fractious debates between art plus commerce; elitism and Philistinism; an eclectic, connoisseurial sensibility and an incurious, consumerist one. It’s to Tamhane’s credit that while he obviously shares his protagonist’s perception in the power of artwork, especially art that others might dub pretentious or even obscure, he is too much of a realist to let that will belief pass by entirely unchallenged. This thoughtful, multilayered and vividly engrossing movie, a portrait of the artist as a young Mumbai musician, is also a remarkably clear-eyed record of private frustration, bitterness and failing. “The Disciple” may strike a blow for art in a world dominated by industry, but it also forgoes the simple superiority and self-congratulation that can ensnare many artists (and, to be sure, more than a few critics).
And now, following its unceremonious April 30 discharge by Netflix, which acquired it in January, the particular film finds itself broadsided by an irony that Sharad might appreciate. “The Disciple, ” a movie you may not have heard of until now, also happens to be one of the finest movies in this still-young year. This really is hardly a rare or surprising occurrence: Some of the most interesting movies cycle through theaters plus streaming-service menus every year with out attracting much notice. Nevertheless, given a mainstream film culture that treats art with reflexive hostility — witness the performative indifference and faux-populist scorn that will greeted this year’s Oscar nominees — it’s reasonable to ask what chance a smart, subtly layered image like “The Disciple” provides of finding the audience this deserves.
An even sadder question: What chance does “The Disciple” possess when its own distributor hardly seems aware of its existence? When the film dropped upon Netflix last week, it do so with zero advance phrase or publicity, bringing to mind the streaming giant’s similarly hot-potato treatment of other recent acclaimed titles from abroad, like the BAFTA-winning English dilemma “Rocks” and the Oscar-shortlisted Taiwanese melodrama “A Sun. ” The lack of fanfare seems specifically galling in the case of “The Disciple, ” one of the best-received entries at last year’s Venice, Toronto and New York film celebrations (and the winner of the screenplay prize at Venice). A widely lauded sophomore effort from a major new talent should have been revealed with singular care plus attention. Instead, “The Disciple” was treated as just another streaming-menu thumbnail, one more minimal tile in Netflix’s ever-expanding global content mosaic.
Since then, “The Disciple’s” advertising apparatus appears to have kicked in, possibly in response to the particular indignant social-media outcry through journalists. I don’t mean to belabor my indignation; I actually generally review movies, not release strategies. But Netflix’s shoddy treatment of “The Disciple” — and its dispiriting good marginalizing titles from abroad that are invariably marginalized to start with — can’t really be divorced from what the movie is all about: the vulnerability of a lot great art and the degree to which art survives, sometimes just barely, through the devotion of a passionate few.
The protagonist of “The Disciple” has enthusiasm to burn. Sharad, who we first meet being a 24-year-old in 2006, is an aspiring scholar and performer of Hindustani, or north Indian, classical music, an art form that calls forth a near-religious devotion from its adherents. (The movie’s title is not any accident. ) Sharad hails from near isolation with his grandmother (Neela Khedkar) in Mumbai, avoiding phone calls from his mother, who disapproves of his calling. Like his longtime guru, or Guruji (Arun Dravid), he spends nearly every waking moment looking to master his art, which usually demands technical skill, improvisatory brilliance and something more: a daunting, possibly unattainable degree of religious and philosophical purity.
“It cannot be learned so easily. Even 10 lifetimes are not enough. ” Those are the words of the late Maai (voiced simply by Sumitra Bhave), a renowned guru whose recorded lectures Sharad often listens to while riding his motorcycle through Mumbai in more calm, quieter glimpses than we are used to seeing of this famously bustling city. Those songs were passed down to your pet by his late dad (Kiran Yadnyopavit), who we occasionally see in warmly tinted flashbacks instilling in his young son a love for this extraordinary and extraordinarily demanding music.
Notably, those demands drop heavily on the audience as well as the artist. The viewer who, like me, approaches “The Disciple” with zero knowledge of Hindustani music may still be hard-pressed by movie’s end to describe the workings of a raga (the musical framework within which singers have the independence to improvise) or to identify the subtleties of phrasing and intonation that might distinguish a good performance from a bad one. But thanks to the amazing concentration of the filmmaking — to say nothing of the blues ambiance of the tanpura and the melodic rise and drop of the singers’ voices — one’s ignorance matters lower than might be expected. As for the great and the bad: Even the inexperienced ear will soon understand that, within this highly competing world, Sharad is an erratic talent at best. Whether he’s training with Guruji, that has quick to correct his every single vocal misstep, or being ejected early from a younger talent competition, he completely disproves the optimistic rule that hard work and a small luck are all it takes.
At about the halfway mark, “The Disciple” sensations forward several years to find an old, paunchier, more cynical Sharad still plugging away, at this point balancing equally unfulfilling careers as a music teacher and occasional performer. It’s here that the movie’s portrait of the music scene takes on ever sharper, more satirical measurements. At one point, Sharad has an ill-advised sitdown with a veteran music critic (played with a dead-on mix of erudition and snark by Prasad Vanarse), in a scene in whose beautifully modulated emotional pressure shows Tamhane’s writing plus direction at their fine-grained best.
Modak, in a quietly magnetic screen debut, gradually provides Sharad into focus. A few of his most revealing moments are essentially wordless: A person register his contempt and envy when a younger singer (Kristy Banerjee) becomes a reality-TV sensation and also his barely contained fury at the unflattering comments on his YouTube movies. Among other things, “The Disciple” is really a decades-spanning chronicle of an enjoyment industry in constant technical flux, which means it’s fascinated with the ephemeral as well as the eternal. The chunky-looking recording machines Sharad uses to move old cassettes may be obsolete ’80s technology, but it can also be a means of preserving and engaging with a timeless art.
Such complexities are readily available in “The Disciple, ” which works as both a good unusually penetrating character study and an expansive social panorama. As in Tamhane’s splendid 2014 debut feature, “Court” (which can be streamed for free on Kanopy ), nearly every picture consists of a widescreen establishing chance that keeps the figures at a bit of a distance yet brings us deep into their entire world, with its intimate domestic areas and crowded music halls. It also ensures that the protagonist never quite becomes the particular hero of his story. Sharad may occupy the center of these capacious frames (meticulously composed by the Polish cinematographer Michal Soboci´nski), but in almost every moment he is surrounded, challenged and even eclipsed by those around him. Their aspirations remain heartbreakingly near to the surface, but his solipsism is kept firmly at bay.
Tamhane’s use of visual distance has its antecedents in a staggeringly wealthy history of art-cinema realism, including the work of his late, great countryman Satyajit Ray. But if you’re reminded associated with more recent work, namely Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma, ” you’re on to something: Tamhane has been mentored by Cuarón and worked on the set of “Roma, ” and Cuarón in turn provided guidance during this movie’s production and is credited as an executive producer.
Like “The Disciple, ” “Roma” tells an exquisitely observed personal story whose aesthetic wonders need a big screen for maximum influence. Unlike “The Disciple, ” “Roma” was at least handled by Netflix as more compared to an afterthought thanks to Cuarón’s imprimatur and the movie’s honours potential. Tamhane’s film doesn’t need awards to prove its worth. It simply needs a distributor that gives a damn.
(In Bengali, English, Hindi plus Marathi with English subtitles)
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: On Netflix