Apne man mein dubkar paaja suraage zindagi,
Tu agar mera nahi banta na ban apna to ban.
(In your mind and through self-reflection you find answers to life’s issues,
It is ok if you don’t become my friend at least befriend yourself.)
I couldn’t help but remember this couplet by Dr. Allama Iqbal after watching Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi film Disciple. Netflix recently bought the rights to show the internationally acclaimed Marathi art house film Disciple. Chaitanya Tamhane had debuted with the critically acclaimed film Court earlier. The film is broadly based on the Indian classical music gharanas as well as the internal politics and the workings of it. The film on the surface is about the Indian classical music, its practitioners, the much acclaimed Guru-Shishya tradition and the hallowed tradition of respecting the guru or the master.
However, I found the film to be much troubling, layered and philosophical from within. Sharad Nerulkar has devoted his life to becoming an Indian classical music vocalist. He has followed traditions and disciplines of his old masters, his guru as well as his father. However, Sharad is a troubled soul throughout the film. Unlike a good Bandish or a good rendition of a raga his life is tattered, scattered and has disturbed internal rumblings that are anything but sonorous. It is not that Sharad is a bad singer. He is neither an excellent one till the end of the film. However, for him he always seeks solace and relief from outside and it is this that instead keeps him burdened.
The burden is all pervading. It is from his father who was a great connoisseur of classical music however couldn’t become a practitioner himself. On the other end is his mother with whom he doesn’t stay any longer however who wishes to see him married off. His musical guru is a gold standard for him and his music. However, the guru hasn’t seen much success during his life and has to rely on Sharad even to pay his 450 rupees medical bill. The guru is relying on some soirees and a random award and his students to sustain himself in a two room kitchen house where old tanpuras jostle for space with minimal furniture and kitchen.
There is a certain desolate, dark, jaded and old feel about the surroundings in the movie. Right from the guru’s house, to Sharad's home to the place where performances are held in the movie all of them are transfixed in time. The set and the design align nicely with the internal burden and turmoil that Sharad experiences in his quest to become a Hindustani classical singer. The daily worries like finding employment or getting married take precedence over his quest to become a perfect classical singer. He also helps a family friend in his music studio in transcribing rare speeches of an acclaimed singer called ‘Mai’. Mai in Sharad’s own circuit of his guru and his ‘guru-bandhus’ or co-disciples is a revered musical genius who never believed in performing for the people.
Mai’s presence in the film is only through her shaky, geriatric voice where she waxes eloquent about the arduous rites of passage that a classical music student has to go through to achieve something in the ‘Hindustani classical music’. In one of the voiceovers, Mai even goes on to say that Hindustani music is‘Maargi’ music only meant for the spiritual soul. A singer has to sing not for the people but for god. While Sharad is riding on a bike from one place to another in old South Mumbai lanes of Dadar and Girgaon, Mai’s words from her tapes are interspersed throughout his journey.
Be it Sharad’s father’s presence in the movie which only appears in flashback or his Guru’s existential predicament which is omnipresent or ‘Mai's voice they are all talking about the exalted virtues of Hindustani music and the great work of its masters. However, the words inspire Sharad but don’t contribute in any way in Sharad finding that ultimate spark that will make him happy from within and propel his musical career. Hence, despite sonorous performances throughout the film the layered film comes across as a tragedy. The use of silence and simple narrative style (trademark of Tamhane style) add to the trouble seething within Sharad.
While the protagonist of the film inherits a rich tradition and respects his gurus it barely helps him to address his own life’s realities. Love from a colleague is elusive, depravity is common and one continues to figure out whether it is Sharad’s soul search or his musical search which is a bigger burden for him.
The film without deriding or insulting the great Hindustani classical music exposes subtly the fake hubris and the retrograde thinking of servility that exists in the ‘Guru- disciple’ tradition of Indian classical music. It also teaches an important life lesson that the Buddhist texts speak of which is ‘Atta deep bhava’ or being your own light. Another Iqbal couplet beautifully summarises the message in the film.
‘Duniya ki mehfilon se ukta gaya huun ya raab,
Kya lutf anjuman ka jab dil hi bujh gaya ho.’
(I am weary of these worldly congregations/these meetings don’t lift my spirits as my heart is morose.)