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The Disciple and the anxiety of ambition

Simran Singh

BySimran Singh

Oct 30, 2020

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The Disciple directed by Chaitanya Tamhane is a meditative story about an aspiring artist, Sharad Narulkar with deep seated yearning to reach perfection in his art form, classical music. The opening sequence is of a small event where a seasoned Indian classical singer is performing Khayal (an ancient vocal genre in Hindustani Music). We see the audience enamored as the camera slowly pans through the room eventually to his disciple who looks up to him in swaying admiration. It’s a look of hope; of someone who has inspiration and a passion to work towards his dreams. The reverence he has for his master is born from years and years of musical training and romanticisation of musical perfection as a sacrificial journey from his father, who himself failed as an artist, passing musical sensibilities and the itch of reaching greatness to his son. Sharad Nerulkar (an excellent Aditya Modak) is the 24 year old disciple training to become a classical music vocalist.

The narrative is set in Mumbai, depicting a bustling towering city adorned with critical harsh judgmental eye. Sharad rides his motorcycle through the empty nighttime Mumbai in slow motion, meditating over the voice of Maai (voiced by Marathi filmmaker, Sumitra Bhave). He listens to her somber preachings in the quietude of the night. Sharad constantly practices, performs at competitions, works for his friend Kishore (Makarand Mukund). His work is to restore old tapes, cassettes of rare classical Indian music into CDs, and sell them at musical concerts. He has surrounded his life by classical music.

Not Good Enough

All the elements are in the right place except Sharad is not good enough. That one inexplicable core atom that differentiates great artists from regular people. He is riddled with self-doubt and constantly questions his artistic ability, anxiously making mistakes. He is vocally inconsistent, lacks the patience, discipline and perseverance one needs to become great at classical music, and he is easily distracted and lacks self-control – he’s a very flawed human like most people, but with big aspirations. We see him succumbing to his desires as he jerks to porn. The loneliness of long, sacrificial journey to being an artist is intolerable for him. Having a restless heart with huge ambitions is something Maai warns against. He keeps going regardless, with the force of his quiet soul.

The narrative jumps in time to more than a decade after. There’s a tonal shift marked with shift in color scheme and melancholic undertones. Shard has gained considerable weight, in body and soul. Decades of dedication of music has sucked his soul dry. He still rides his bikes in the nights, and sometimes shuts out the earphones. He still practices, performs in front of an audience but now the daily grind is marked with a punctuated bitterness, an inevitable exhaustion. Time has moved on and while the people around him have adapted themselves to the changing circumstances (shown by the Fame contestant going from singing classical music to popular hit songs, and everyone he knows posting their recordings on YouTube), he struggles to keep up. CDs are replaced with USB drives, having a website and a YouTube channel is a prerequisite for an artist.

In one of the most remarkable scene of the film, Sharad projects his own failures and bitter rage on his student of classical music for trying to join a fusion band. The burden of years sowing frustration is clearly visible. In his final concert with his Guruji, he has a very unfocused, disenchanted look in his eyes. It’s a very important detail that encompasses our protagonist’s entire journey.

Tamhane’s examination spanning different stages in the Sharad’s life as he struggles hard to prevent himself from being engulfed by social obligations and invariable complications of urban living – like fame, sustainability, professional success, envy – that go against the teachings of Maai (an old reclusive mentor, who lived in a characteristically different age), who is a pure practitioner of the craft. It tells a tale of how difficult it is live out one’s own mediocrity. There is an immersive transcendent quality that persists in much of ‘The Disciple’, punctuated by the repeated use of ‘tanpura’ drone in the background. They distill a cool, detached state of mind, both for the viewer and for the protagonist. Factually, the film deals with a specific subgenre of Indian Classical vocal music (a subject many not be well versed at all), but the observations made so acutely and the opinions expressed so eloquently have a tremendous universality them. And not just classical music, they hold true for any pure art form, be it pottery or painting. The underplaying of despair that comes inevitably with this journey is contributes ironically to highlighting it even more. As a director, Tamhane has sharp eye. Alfonso Cuaron (director of Roma) is an executive producer here and his influence is visible in every scene, every shot is gentle and seamless. It leaves the viewer mesmerized. It is an intense personal film, vast in emotional bandwidth.

How Far Do You Go to Achieve Greatness?

The film, however, is a profound expansive study of a failed artist, the inherent vast depression that comes with being a dreamer, slow meaningless death of aspirations. It is a tale of coming to terms with not being good enough. Artists are defined culturally by a certain madness, shutting the mundanity of reality to find their sanctum sanctorum in art.
This leads to an interesting question that must be must posed for the sanity of artists- how far do you go to achieve greatness? How much do you sacrifice for a dream that might never be realized? Where do you draw the line?

A case could be made that musical perfection was never Sharad’s own conception of ambition. It was an unrealized yearning that was passed from father to son when the son was a small child with an impressionable mind and not enough maturity to choose their passion. How do we know Sharad would be inclined to go into the same artform if he was allowed to experiment freely in his formative years?

Borrowed Ambition

There is a future in which if Sharad was free from familial expectations, he would have stumbled across something that set ablaze his passion. He would have naturally excelled at something that was his own choosing. By extension, Sharad’s entire life is built on a borrowed foundation. Therein lies the root for his failure.

Indian youth flocks to metropolises, driven by this desire to achieve big dreams, original or borrowed-often passed down as a familial tradition. This cultural stereotype that has been perpetuated for millennia is a sham in itself. By laws of probability, greatness is meant to be achieved by only few of us. The façade of “follow your dreams” does not account for the complex social realities of real life- not everyone has the means and resources to achieve their dreams, not everyone is exceptionally talented, not everyone is meant for huge aspirations, not everyone is lucky to be noticed. There are a series of anonymous events that take place in order for someone to come into limelight- what we usually ascribe as luck. For every single person who succeeds, there are thousands who have tried much harder and failed brutally.

Carving New Cultural Foundations

Mumbai, the city inhabited by Sharad, is an oasis for dreamy ambitions but it is also a unflinching witness to millions of shattered dreams. The anxieties marked with making it big in any art form is harmful for mental health and leads to a deeply unhappy life. The story of Sharad is a warning tale. To sacrifice everything on the altar of art and emerge as an insecure insignificant husk of a person the other side is a traumatizing emotional journey. To force down this stereotype to every  impressionable person’s mind is unfair and speaks to the collectively sustaining of facades we all live by.

As a culture we have to conceptualize terms like, “success”, “greatness” with nuance, empathy and vectors of privilege. For instance-

  • Letting the person define what success is for them without any external pressure.
  • Propping up a healthy ecosystem that nurtures individuals to experiment, pursue different professions, make mistakes and learn, encourage unconventional routes.
  • Happiness, contentment, joy as a reasonable measure of success.
  • Privilege as gauge to measure success and acknowledging the towering role of privilege in achieving dreams. For a farmer’s son, getting a government job is success. For an administrator’s son, getting into entrepreneurship is success. We exist in a rigidly defined social hierarchy and climbing ladders with each generation is reasonable success.
  • Creating mechanisms for easy accessibility of crucial resources for everyone ensures a basic minimum options for everyone.
  • There is no second chance we get at life (not that we know of). This one is not a free trial. This life is all we have. In embracing our insignificance lies our freedom. If we lived life with the awareness of how ephemeral it is in the grand scheme of things, suddenly all meaningless pursuits will fall off like scales from fish, giving way to what truly matters.

There is a kind of success that is accommodating of all other aspects of life. A wholesome contentment where it does not feel like torture, where we don’t sacrifice but do things out of sheer joy because it takes priority. After all, the journey towards success and greatness is journey towards an ideal. It’s not a concrete place or attainment. It’s transcending beyond your capability. It’s divination embodied in life.

The attempt should be to try your best and leave it be, not get engulfed by insecurities for the rest of your life. There is nothing wrong in dreaming big. But it has to originate from a self-aware mindfulness rooted in reality, informed by our strengths and inclinations so we don’t  shatter in the face existential despair in middle age like Sharad- cynical, bitter, insignificant. Oftentimes, doing simple things that leads to contentment and joy is enough to keep life going and perhaps, to greatness.

Image credit: The Hindu