Early in “The Disciple,” a brilliantly composed, rigorously intelligent new movie from the Indian writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane, a young man named Sharad (Aditya Modak) sits at a table offering rare musical treasures for sale. No one takes much interest or notice. Sifting idly through the CDs on display, a potential customer says he’s never heard of any of these artists, to which Sharad replies with a true believer’s conviction: “Yes, sir, but they are as good as the famous names.” You can sense him holding back: 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 and commerce; elitism and Philistinism; an eclectic, connoisseurial sensibility and an incurious, consumerist one. It’s to Tamhane’s credit that while he clearly shares his protagonist’s belief in the power of art, especially art that others might dub pretentious or obscure, he is too much of a realist to let that 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 personal frustration, bitterness and failure. “The Disciple” may strike a blow for art in a world dominated by industry, but it also forgoes the easy 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 release by Netflix, which acquired it in January, the 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 is hardly a rare or surprising occurrence: Some of the most interesting films cycle through theaters and streaming-service menus every year without attracting much notice. Still, given a mainstream film culture that treats art with reflexive hostility — witness the performative indifference and faux-populist scorn that greeted this year’s Oscar nominees — it’s fair to ask what chance a smart, subtly layered picture like “The Disciple” has of finding the audience it deserves.
An even sadder question: What chance does “The Disciple” have when its own distributor barely seems aware of its existence? When the film dropped on Netflix last week, it did so with zero advance word or publicity, bringing to mind the streaming giant’s similarly hot-potato treatment of other recent acclaimed titles from overseas, like the BAFTA-winning English drama “Rocks” and the Oscar-shortlisted Taiwanese melodrama “A Sun.” The lack of fanfare seems especially galling in the case of “The Disciple,” one of the best-received entries at last year’s Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals (and the winner of a screenplay prize at Venice). A widely lauded sophomore effort from a major new talent should have been unveiled with singular care and attention. Instead, “The Disciple” was treated as just another streaming-menu thumbnail, one more negligible tile in Netflix’s ever-expanding global content mosaic.
Since then, “The Disciple’s” publicity apparatus appears to have kicked in, possibly in response to the indignant social-media outcry from journalists. I don’t mean to belabor my indignation; I generally review movies, not release strategies. But Netflix’s shoddy treatment of “The Disciple” — and its dispiriting history of marginalizing titles from abroad that are invariably marginalized to begin with — can’t really be divorced from what the movie is about: the vulnerability of so much great art and the degree to which art survives, sometimes just barely, through the devotion of a passionate few.
Aditya Modak in the movie “The Disciple.” (Netflix)
The protagonist of “The Disciple” has passion to burn. Sharad, whom we first meet as a 24-year-old in 2006, is an aspiring scholar and performer of Hindustani, or northern Indian, classical music, an art form that calls forth a near-religious devotion from its adherents. (The movie’s title is no accident.) Sharad lives in 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 trying to master his art, which demands technical skill, improvisatory brilliance and something more: a daunting, possibly unattainable degree of spiritual and philosophical purity.
“It cannot be learnt so easily. Even 10 lifetimes are not enough.” Those are the words of the late Maai (voiced by Sumitra Bhave), a legendary guru whose recorded lectures Sharad often listens to while riding his motorcycle through Mumbai in calmer, quieter glimpses than we’re used to seeing of this famously bustling city. Those recordings were passed down to him by his late father (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 fall 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 explain the workings of a raga (the musical framework within which singers have the freedom to improvise) or to detect the subtleties of phrasing and intonation that might distinguish a good performance from a bad one. But thanks to the extraordinary concentration of the filmmaking — to say nothing of the hypnotic ambiance of the tanpura and the melodic rise and fall of the singers’ voices — one’s ignorance matters less than might be expected. As for the good and the bad: Even the untrained ear will soon grasp that, within this highly competitive world, Sharad is an erratic talent at best. Whether he’s training with Guruji, who’s quick to correct his every vocal misstep, or being ejected early from a young talent competition, he thoroughly disproves the optimistic mantra that hard work and a little luck are all it takes.
At about the halfway mark, “The Disciple” flashes forward several years to find an older, paunchier, more cynical Sharad still plugging away, now 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 dimensions. 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 whose beautifully modulated emotional tension shows Tamhane’s writing and direction at their fine-grained best.
Arun Dravid and Aditya Modak in the movie “The Disciple.” (Netflix)
Modak, in a quietly magnetic screen debut, gradually brings Sharad into focus. Some of his most revealing moments are essentially wordless: You 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 videos. Among other things, “The Disciple” is a decades-spanning chronicle of an entertainment industry in constant technological flux, which means it’s fascinated by the ephemeral as well as the eternal. The chunky-looking recording equipment Sharad uses to transfer old cassettes may be outdated ’80s technology, but it is also a means of preserving and engaging with a timeless art form.
Such complexities abound in “The Disciple,” which works as both an 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 scene consists of a widescreen establishing shot that keeps the characters at a bit of a distance but brings us deep into their world, with its intimate domestic spaces and crowded music halls. It also ensures that the protagonist never quite becomes the hero of his story. Sharad may occupy the center of these capacious frames (meticulously composed by the Polish cinematographer Michal Soboci´nski), but at almost every moment he is surrounded, challenged and even eclipsed by those around him. His aspirations remain heartbreakingly close to the surface, but his solipsism is kept firmly at bay.
Tamhane’s use of visual distance has its antecedents in a staggeringly rich history of art-cinema realism, including the work of his late, great countryman Satyajit Ray. But if you’re reminded of more recent work, namely Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” you’re on to something: Tamhane was 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 require a big screen for maximum impact. Unlike “The Disciple,” “Roma” was at least treated by Netflix as more than an afterthought thanks to Cuarón’s imprimatur and the movie’s awards potential. Tamhane’s film doesn’t need awards to prove its worth. It just needs a distributor that gives a damn.