Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 30, 2020 8:54 am 
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Trapped in the pressures of musical tradition in modern India

The Disciple is a fantastic, complex and quite unexpected film about the undermining of cultural tradition and the pressure on a fledgling practitioner of traditional art to achieve an inaccessible perfection. Of Tamhane's debut film Court, shown in New Directors/New Films 2015, I wrote, "All the romance has been drained from our vision of India by the time we've experienced this complex, mind-boggling, convincing film." This sophomore effort isn't quite as grim as that meandering, ironic picture of India's corrupt, bureaucratic judicial system, but here again Tamhane gives us a disturbing, challenging watch that takes on central aspects of Indian life. Tamhane is a remarkable, uniquely thought-provoking filmmaker, a significant new cinematic voice from India.

The main character is a not-so-young man called Sharad (real musician and fledgling actor Aditya Modak) who wishes to become a significant performer-singer of Śāstriya Saṅgīt, North Indian classical music, aka Hindustani music. This music dates from the 12th century when it branched off from far older music. We know if from the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, who brought it to the West. He taught us about ragas, and that there were morning and evening ones: here we that there are numerous more specific ones even little boys, in some families, are supposed to know the names of. We also learn that yoga and yogic meditation are elements in the mastery of this art. Khayal is the tradition of improvisational singing, and it comes from the Arabic word for "imagination," but all the rest of this film is in Marathi language with a few moments and frequent words in English.

Once I heard his sister-in-law Lakshmi Shankar: her singing had technical perfection and an otherworldly beauty. But a difficulty here is that we don't know this highly improvisational yet deeply traditional music well enough to know when the singing is good or not. And it's important to know that Sharad, who is riddle by doubt, may not be good enough - or not good enough yet. Modak must be conveying that, but can we appreciate it? We hear frequent excerpts from classical Indian music concerts, which may seem beautiful and calming, but also trouble us with trying to figure out where they fit in today's India and where Sharad fits in.

Sharad lives with and cares for his aged guruji (Arun Dravid, a master of khayal), who is very severe with him always and seems to suggest he won't make the grade, that his performances are too bland or repetitious. The worst of it is Sharad is criticized by his guru under his breath in joint public performances where the student tabla player and young female singing sitar player seem accepted by him as successes. He also listens to tapes - we hear them as we see him in slow motion riding in the evening on the astonishingly deserted Mumbai freeway on his motorbike - the sharp voice of Maai (Sumitra Bhave), a legendary woman, his guru's guru, who's singing was never recorded, but who pronounces on the relentless demands of the art and the absurdity of paying attention to conventional standards or performing for audiences. (It turns out Sharad's father was a student of Maai, but a mediocre one; it's on him to do better.) "I sing only for my guru and for my god," she says, her "god" presumably being Sarasvatī, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom, and learning; in her Wikipedia picture she is seen playing a sitar with two of her four arms. The slow-mo motorbike ride with the guru's guru is a repeated signature image, one of the ones we take away from this complicated, often troubling flim.

Sharad does some tutoring of young boys with a harmonium. But Sharad's mother, who thinks she keeps the boys too long working, keeps telling him to get a real job, or any job job, which he rejects. Yet he must pay his guru's medical bills. He does work at a recording business under Kishore (Makarand Mukund) selling CD's made from tapes obscure Indian classical music artists.

Sharad is initially only 24, and by tradition he must be a student till he's 40, and only then can get married; he tells his mother a divorcee or widow will be okay. Meanwhile, he masturbates, the film frankly shows, to the inspiration of online porn. He surfs and finds an unflattering video of himself performing, more noise in his dedicated life. The years go by, and we see him at different stages, with and wit out a mustache.

Always there is the threat, further out, of Hindustani music's degeneration or corruption or simply fading out thorough lack of interest or lack of understanding or lack of audience. The idea of "fusion" corrupting the music comes several times, first close to home from a student offered a job in a "fusion" band asking (through his mother) Sharad's permission to take it - his consent is withering in its disapproval; then on TV, from Shaswati Bose (Kristy Banerjee), a young woman contestant on a reality music competition show called "Fame India" who starts out with a minute or two of classical performance. The judges congratulate her on her voice and it's "on the Mumbai!" From then on she becomes a pop/Bollywood fusion star Sharad must be watching in horror. It's all the pain of not being appreciated when the tradition your are following is the pure, true one and what is admired all around is a debasement, or something from abroad.

Worse yet debasement comes from within, when Sharad has d meeting arranged by Kishore with Rajan Joshi (Prasad Vanarse), a renowned music critic who clams to know all - he's quite convincing - and who promply, while consuming a whisky and soda trashes both Sharad's guru and even Maai, whom he speaks of in the most humiliating terms imaginable. It's a brilliantly written scene, pushing the situation to the limits without overstepping credibility. You acutely feel its sting, and Sharad's rage and sense of insult.

How it all ends we don't really know from a final brief scene that appears happy but leaves the outcome of all that's gone before uncertain. Tamhane, who wrote, directed, and edited this film, is all the more proven a true original from this second example. But he remains austere, as indicated by the work of his dp Michal Sobocinski, who provides many unflashy establishing shots and photographs the real live concerts from a discreet distance. We are lucky to have this fiercely intelligent new director from India.

The Disciple, debuted at Venice Sept. 4, 2020 to general acclaim, winning there Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Golden Lion (Best Film). Reviewed enthusiastically there by Jay Weissberg in Variety and Deborah Young in Hollywood Reporter. Also shown ]at Toronto, Zurich (nominated for best international feature), New York and London. Screened for this review as part of the virtual NYFF Sept. 29. Executive produced by Alfonso Cuarón.Metacritic rating 79%.

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