Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Disciple (2020) dir. Chaitanya Tamhane

A religiously infused experience of Hindustani classical music


A beautiful Netflix original that takes seriously religious mysticism, in a Hinduism variety, The Disciple (2020), through its pairing of seraphic visuals with hypnotic music and sounds, navigates the ephemeral and enchants the view in the process.

Unfortunately, the studio doesn’t seem to have placed much confidence in the film. Despite almost exclusively using my Netflix account to watch Indian, East Asian, and religion-influenced films, priming my algorithm for exactly this sort of movie, the Alfonso Cuarón-produced The Disciple still didn’t appear in any relevant categories on my profile. But hopefully this is a unique problem to my profile, because this is a splendid film that Netflix would do best to champion rather than bury. 

First-time actor Aditya Modak, as Sharad Nerulkar, plays a faithfully devoted student to Guruji (Arun Dravid), a guru of a particular style of Hindustani classical music. Sharad’s relationship to Guruji dwarfs his other students because Guruji also discipled his father. Maai, Guruji’s teacher, was a fabled master of their style who refused recordings of her music, and apparently even audiences. She played for her guru and the divine, she clarifies. Maai, Guruji, Sharad’s father (Kiran Yadnyopavit), and Sharad himself see themselves as the last line of defense for Hindustani classical music, as globalization and technology threaten the centuries old tradition. Sharad, despite his devotion, just misses the mark in his singing. Something’s not right, and he avoids the answer like COVID-19: he’s not as passionate about Hindustani as he thinks.

As someone totally tune- and tone-deaf, let alone as a foreigner to Hindustani classical, I naturally have no ability to recognize whether or not Sharad’s performing well or not in any particular scene—but the visual feedback from other characters provides all the information, so even the uninitiated, like me, can track. 

The Disciple is at its best in the scenes where Sharad is on the highway with his bike, as he listens to Maai lectures his father secretly recorded. Broaching on the door of the self-help genre, her lectures concentrate on the religious experience of performing. Tamhane’s direction seams sublime long oners with a sirenic score over her vocal track, mimicking the very effect she preaches. 

The combination of the sonic and visual mediums to produce ecstasy are replicated with a few abrupt scene inserts of Sharad masturbating while the music from previous scenes continues, almost uninterrupted by the female orgasmic noises coming from his computer—physical/sexual ecstasy is also added to the religious equation intended by Maai. 

Sharad, though a disciple of Guruji, ages a few decades by the film’s end. Along the way, he matures and has his world frustrated by a journalist who illuminates a few unsettling truths about Maai. As he matures, so does the tone. No longer about simple ecstasy or mystical experiences that bring one closer to a spiritual realm, political violence and Hindu-Muslim relations surface, thereby somewhat recoloring or complicating the urge to preserve Hindustani classical music.

The Disciple
dir. Chaitanya Tamhane
127 min.

Now streaming on Netflix

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