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'The Disciple' Is Triumphant, Even As It Tells A Story Of Failure

Justin Chang says the captivating new drama, "The Disciple," is one of the best movies he's seen this year. The film won the best screenplay prize at last year's Venice International Film Festival. It tells the story of a young man from Mumbai who aspires to be a great classical Indian singer.

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Other segments from the episode on May 5, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Wednesday, May 5, 2021: Interview with Alison Bechdel; Review of 'The Disciple.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang says the captivating new drama, "The Disciple," is one of the best movies he's seen this year. The film won the best screenplay prize at last year's Venice International Film Festival. It tells the story of a young man from Mumbai who aspires to be a great classical Indian singer. Here's Justin's review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Before I saw "The Disciple," I knew nothing about Hindustani or Northern Indian classical music. By the end of the movie, I knew a little bit more, though I'd still be hard-pressed to follow the different intonations that singers bring to their performances or to explain how a raga works. That's the musical framework that allows performers to improvise. Fortunately, no expertise is needed to appreciate "The Disciple," which is both a welcome introduction to a kind of music we rarely hear on screen and a richly layered story of a young man's artistic struggle. His name is Sharad, and he's played with great depth and emotional subtlety by Aditya Modak.

It's 2006, and the 24-year-old Sharad lives in Mumbai with his grandmother, working occasionally but spending most of his time studying his chosen art form. Hindustani classical music doesn't just require impeccable technique and brilliant improvisation. It's an all-consuming discipline, demanding a level of spiritual purity that singers can spend a lifetime trying to achieve. We learn some of this from the lectures that Sharad listens to as he rides his motorbike at night around Mumbai in scenes that capture a calmer side of this famously bustling city.

We also spend a lot of time watching and listening to him practice. The writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane immerses us in this music, letting us get used to its distinct sounds and rhythms. During this practice session, Sharad sits cross-legged on the floor and takes turns singing with his longtime teacher and guru, played by Arun Dravid. His is the first voice you hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DISCIPLE")

ARUN DRAVID: (As Guruji, singing in non-English language).

ADITYA MODAK: (As Sharad, singing in non-English language).

CHANG: Sharad is completely devoted to his craft, but he's an erratic performer at best. His uninspired singing gets him ejected early from a young artists' competition, and his guru doesn't hesitate to criticize him during rehearsals and even during a public performance. "The Disciple" throws cold water on the notion, much beloved by so many inspirational movies, that hard work and a little luck are all it takes. It's an unsparing portrait of artistic frustration.

About halfway through, the movie leaps ahead to roughly the present day and becomes an almost satirical depiction of the Indian music scene. Sharad is older and a lot more cynical, working as a schoolteacher and trying to keep his performing career afloat. He watches with both contempt and envy as a younger singer becomes an overnight sensation on an "American Idol"-style reality TV show. And in perhaps the movie's most emotionally lacerating scene, he has an ill-advised sit-down with a veteran music critic who witheringly dismisses Sharad's heroes, including his beloved guru.

We critics, of course, make convenient movie villains. But what sets "The Disciple" apart is how fairly it treats all its characters and how scrupulously it refuses to take sides. Tamhane sympathizes with Sharad through all his disappointments, and he clearly shares his belief that his art is worth pursuing and preserving. But he's also too honest a filmmaker to indulge Sharad's self-pity.

Even the director's exquisite visual approach, aided here by the Polish cinematographer Michal Sobocinski, winds up subtly undermining Sharad and putting his struggles in perspective. As in Tamhane's excellent 2014 legal drama, "Court," nearly every scene consists of a single, uninterrupted take, framed at a careful remove from the characters. We're drawn into the cramped little rooms where Sharad practices, and the large, crowded music halls where he performs. This is Aditya Modak's screen debut, and the lack of close-ups makes his performance all the more impressive. Even at a distance and with very few words, he conveys Sharad's bitterness and disillusionment as his life refuses to go as planned.

While "The Disciple" harks back to classic Indian films like Satyajit Ray's "The Music Room," it also carries stylistic echoes of Alfonso Cuaron's similarly meditative and gorgeously photographed movie "Roma." That's no accident. Tamhane, who's 34, was mentored by Cuaron and worked on the set of "Roma." Cuaron, in turn, provided guidance on "The Disciple" and is credited as an executive producer. There's something poignant about that, given how much the story focuses on the student-teacher relationship and the way artistic traditions are passed down. "The Disciple" may tell a story about failure, but it's a triumphant achievement from a gifted film artist.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The Disciple," which is now streaming on Netflix.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how a promised land to generations of Black families became a community of lost lives. My guest will be Linda Villarosa, whose latest article in The New York Times Magazine is titled "Black Lives Are Shorter In Chicago: My Family History Shows Why." She covers the intersection of health and medicine and social justice. I hope you'll join us.

We were very sad to learn that music critic Ed Ward died Monday. For many years, he contributed pieces to our show about the history of rock 'n' roll. We're in the process of preparing a remembrance that we'll broadcast tomorrow. We'll close with a song by a group that Ed Ward loved, The "5" Royales. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE")

THE "5" ROYALES: (Singing) This is dedicated to the one I love. While I'm away from you, my baby, I know it's hard for you, my baby, because it's hard for me, my baby. But the darkest hour is just before day. Each night before you go to bed, my baby, whisper a little prayer for me, my baby. And let's tell all the stars above that this is dedicated to the one I love. Life can never be exactly like we want it to be. But I can be satisfied just knowing you love me. But the one thing I want you to do especially for me - and it's something that everybody needs. Each night before you go to bed, my baby, whisper a little prayer for me, my baby. And let's tell all the stars above that this is dedicated to the one I love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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