For a while, it seems like The Disciple is a film we’ve seen many times before. When we meet young Sharad (Aditya Modak) in 2006, studying under his father (Arun Dravid), a Guru of Indian classical music, he’s framed as a prodigy who has yet to hit his stride. The relationship between mentor and student in the realm of music plays out not unlike a much, much slower version of Whiplash that relies more on specific cultural touchstones than energy and tone. To put it plainly, the first half of The Disciple is a major snooze. But as the second half evolves the film’s conversation into something else entirely, the work becomes a case study in why cinema needs to be listened to as much as watched.
Writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane first plays all the bells and whistles of a feel-good Star is Born story before pulling the rug out from under us entirely. Unlike most popular tales in this subgenre of a subgenre, it becomes clear that Sharad isn’t going to make it, instead having to live his life as a man who is merely very good at his passion, but not truly great. The Disciple starts to inject these themes after a time jump that leads right into the second half, and suddenly, the film miraculously comes to life. But there’s no doubt that the slow, routine first half had to exist at least partially as Tamhane delivers it for all the rich thematic material that comes after to resonate.
Naturally, much of that success lies on Modak’s shoulders. As Sharad, he gives a calculated, devoted performance that turns even the most minor failures into personal felonies. We get the tortured soul of a relatively talented singer, but not that of a true artist, and Modak’s performance carries his pressure into his professional anxiety and existential sadness flawlessly after the time jump. If in the first half of the film we merely understand Sharad’s plight, in the second half we empathize with his yearning for meaning as his window to becoming a great in the Indian classical music sphere starts to shrink.
Smartly, Tamhane’s script interjects a loose A Star is Born adaptation in the background, in which Sharad watches a naturally talented singer in his genre rise through the ranks on India’s American Idol substitute, and then slowly lose every part of the musical traditions that got her there. This clever juxtaposition serves not only to amuse us, but to start questioning the role and value of art in modern society. Has everything Sharad has been practicing for evolved into a cultural moment he can even buy into? Or would he end up a mutated, popularized version of the performer he wanted to be?
A character study, The Disciple doesn’t bog itself down by trying to definitively answer such questions in Sharad’s story. Instead, Tamhane keeps us tuned in to his specific legacy, and that of his father. What is the road to happiness when a person approaching middle-age gives up on their dreams? Despite still being a slow film even in the far superior back half, the over two-hour runtime doesn’t find time for that and glosses over it with simple, recognizable pleasures. But perhaps Sharad had spent his whole life overcomplicating his wants and desires when the writing was already on the wall. The Disciple gets where it wants to go messily, taking a scenic route if there ever was one, but in the end, its simple presentation merges with its complicated emotions to find a deeply satisfying place for Sharad and those in the audience like him.