The Disciple's closing scene — a static shot that runs uncut for roughly two and a half minutes – is virtually a tour de force in terms of the medium's sheer intricacy and intensity. I won't go into detail about what happens in the moment, but if I were to orally summarise the life of the film's protagonist Sharad Nerulkar in a few sentences and then merely show you the final shot of the film, the shot would still make perfect sense and have an emotional impact on you.
Of course, to properly comprehend the gravity of The Disciple's final image, you must first comprehend everything that has preceded it. At its most basic level, the film depicts the life of an aspiring classical singer in Mumbai, who spends practically every waking moment of his adolescence preoccupied with the ups and downs of his chosen profession.
With all of its magnificent traditions and esoterica, Indian classical music appears to be a merciless pursuit for someone who yearns for success, an immensely difficult road for someone who wants to ‘make it'. Tamhane's film eventually takes a close look at all the varied shapes and sizes of what "making it" may entail, and how much of it relies on the person whose perspective we're seeing through.
Sharad, who is in his twenties, is full of hope and ambition. He is sincere; he works hard; he is loyal to, nearly idolises, his guru. Despite the fact that he frequently fails in front of an audience, you can tell he has potential. Sharad's 'guruji' seems unfazed by the imperfections in his singing or performances, reminding him every now and again that his journey into the sea of classical music, like the master's, is going to be long and tough. Sharad seems to be aware of this and to comprehend it cognitively. Internalizing it emotionally, on the other hand? That's another storey entirely.
Sharad is shown in three different stages of his life. A few flashbacks take us back to Sharad's boyhood, focusing on his memories of his father, a trained classical singer who tries to instil in his son the same fervent love for the art that he has. Sharad's youth (mid-twenties) and later his late thirties (and a little of his forties), when the world and its ways have weathered him, are the main subject of the film. Despite the fact that the film is simply a collection of footage from these periods of his life, you get a feeling of the toll taken on him not just by what we see in the film, but also by all those decades that you don't see. Even while much of what we see is inherently tragic, the film is adamant about avoiding increasing drama for the most part as we watch his life evolve through these various scenes.
Sharad's relationship with his master; his deification of his master's master – the near-mythical Maai (voiced with gravitas by the late Sumitra Bhave), whom he only knows through audio recordings of her lectures that he listens to on loop; his successes and failures, both in his chosen path and in life; all of it is imbued with a deep sense of pathos, but it plays out as matter-of-fact life itself.
If Chaitanya Tamhane's debut picture Court wowed, The Disciple demonstrates a much enhanced command of the medium. Every frame appears to have been meticulously produced - Tamhane employs significantly fewer shots in his films than most directors, so they all have to be worthwhile. While Tamhane's preference for broad static frames remains, the camera is notably more active than in his previous film. Its movements are precise and soft, perfectly tuned to the meaning of the first and end frames.
While many of the visual differences between Court and The Disciple stem from the fact that the latter is a more personal storey with a defined protagonist, I couldn't help but wonder if and how much of the storey, as well as the nature of the camera movement, was influenced by Alfonso Cuarón and Tamhane's time on the sets of Roma as a mentor. But make no mistake: The Disciple is a distinctly Indian picture, steeped in Tamhane's creation of space and cinematic time.