Mwe hardly ever make films about mediocre artists, for the obvious reason that history has rightly forgotten them. It is delightful indignity, for example, that the great Oscar-winning adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about obscure Italian composer Antonio Salieri is called Amadeus, after the musical scholar whose genius eclipsed it by far. Sometimes generational fame is a matter of timing or ineffable charisma, as the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis hinted about its hero, a folk musician who never was. (It’s no coincidence that the man who played Salieri, F Murray Abraham, breaks the devastating news that he “sees no money” in the singer’s work.) But in the real world, such stories are written constantly, because so few have the means to realize their dreams of greatness.
The superb Indian drama The Disciple, picked up and released last year on Netflix, offers the rarest of rare portraits of artistic mediocrity, because it’s not about that precious window of glory that’s usually triggered in youth. It’s not even about the pursuit of fame at all per se, at least beyond the narrow slice of connoisseurs who appreciate the rigors of traditional Indian classical music. For Sharad (Aditya Neruikar), a passionate young musician learning at the feet (and sometimes by foot-massage) of blackmailer Guruji (Arun Dravid), patience is a necessary virtue. After a disappointing performance, Sharad is told that singers cannot be expected to find their voices until they are 40 years old. At this point in the film, he has 16 years left.
As the title suggests, The Disciple isn’t about a typical mentor-mentee relationship, but rather about extreme devotion, which makes it as similar to films about the acetic demands of the priesthood as it is to films about musicians. Mumbai writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane (Short) begins with a shot of Guruji singing on stage before slowly moving past him to focus on Sharad behind him on sitar, looking utterly delighted with the performance. Although Sharad will face many humiliations and crises of faith later, Tamhane connects to his true passion for classical singing and the way it gracefully and intuitively undulates around simple instrumentation. He knows fortune doesn’t follow – the aging Guruji relies on him for treatments and the odd medical bill – but transcendence might.
Still, Tamhane strikes at a stark but universal truth: that you can work hard to pursue your dreams and just simply lack the talent to achieve them. Nobody boos Sharad out of the building, but there are murmurs and lukewarm applause, and events where other singers get the nod on him. In a particularly humiliating moment, Guruji leans towards him mid-performance to criticize his backing vocals. Meanwhile, he watches another classically trained singer smash the Indian equivalent of American Idol hard by merging traditional raga with broader pop sounds – which he considers a terrible desecration of form while seething with jealousy. .
The signature sequences of The Disciple are those gorgeous slow-motion shots of Sharad driving his motorbike through the streets of Mumbai at night, remembering key passages from a scuffed old record about how to train as a classical singer. They remind him that his quest is eternal, not suitable for someone who wants to earn money or start a family – “Although the music”, he recalls, “we are shown a path to the divine”. But Tamhane includes scenes of his hero as an older, heavier, no more accomplished man, playing in small, half-filled rooms where crowds of old people are scattered on plastic chairs. Whatever “the divine” looks like, that’s not it.
Yet, as sobering as Sharad’s journey is often, The Disciple isn’t about wallowing in failure, but about a man who is forced to consider a different path for his personal growth. A career in Indian classical music is a difficult road for even the most resounding success, but even if it were lucrative, Sharad has to face a truth that almost everyone faces: that there will be someone one – probably several people – better than you at the thing you enjoy doing the most. And it can be cosmically unfair if it comes as naturally to them as it does to the childish, childish maestro of Amadeus. What happens next is that a person’s character is really tested. In Tamhane’s deep and complicated drama, life lessons are not easy.