Saturday, May 1, 2021


We are in a moment that prizes the overnight success, the amateur who bests the pros, the wunderkind. Too often this robs us of recognizing the long, patient, apprenticeship which can deepen and strengthen an artist’s skills and appreciation for their chosen forms. Too often, too, we conflate hard work with good work; how frequently do you hear that putting-in-the-work and staying-on-that-grind is synonymous with working effectively or knowing your stuff? How frustrating for the youthful or even not-so-youthful and struggling artists to hear all their hard work must not be enough. Even monkish devotion to a chosen art is insufficient when confronted with those outside the fold.

Those are central tensions in The Disciple, a new film from Indian writer-director-editor Chaitanya Tamhane. It follows a young musician (Aditya Modak) studying Indian classical music at the feet of a master (Arun Dravid). The 24-year-old is good, but not great. He’ll admit it. He spends time doting, with two other students, on the old guru, literally sitting at his feet. The old man gives them advice. They play backing for his concerts, intimate affairs in small rooms where he’ll drone on in long melodious phrases that invite the listener to lean in and study the quavering of the notes in a contemplative, meditative state. As the film goes on, with these long, patient sequences of teaching and listening, the film itself teaches the viewer how to listen. By the end, I felt I could differentiate between the workmanlike skills of the younger singers, and what sets distinguishes the brilliance of the elders. He is a movie about a man with a single-minded pursuit of his goal, and the many obstacles and competing ideas that get in his way. He devotes himself to the history and the craft of this form, even as the world seems determined to marginalize and undervalue the hard work he’s put into it.

As such it’s a story about passion and obsession—a pursuit of artistic purity as a dogged, stubborn, quixotic quest. The young man practices. He listens to lectures, rarities on tape he cherishes as a connection to the past. We hear them as he does, on long rides deep into the night down city streets. His devotion to his craft, his sacrifice—putting off urging of others to look for other work to help support himself while he struggles—becomes nigh fanatical. He simply must be the best. His late father, we learn, was a similarly passionate, frustrated practitioner of this classical music. There are all kinds of stubborn psychological implications underneath the long, placid pace of the lengthy shots and scenes. He’s following a chosen path of artistic purity passionately, devotedly, and maybe a little blindly. When confronted by fans, critics, musicians who see their field from a different perspective, he has a hard time reconciling these divisions. Similarly, he can’t always reconcile his continual hard work with his seeming lack of progress.

Here is a moving, gently cutting film that’s honest about the emotional labor involved in scraping out a marginal career in an artistic pursuit. Its accumulation of detail is well-chosen, well-considered. We see honest moments in which the young man is prickly toward those who don’t share his vision, even those who share some elements of his interests. We also see scenes of isolation, where the only companion he has at night is the lonely glow of a laptop screen. At his most frustrated, he seems to be asking why can’t others see in him what he is trying to perfect, or why others can’t care even a little bit about the aspects of his art he sees as essential. (Shades of Llewyn Davis, there.) The film is as slow and patient as this musician’s journey, with simple framing, steady zooms, and inevitable chipping away at a dream. This is a movie about an art and a trade, and the intersections that ask so much. The work is a source of frustration and satisfaction. It builds him up, even as he grinds in place.

Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger is also a story of a striver, but its telling is brash and hustling, shot with a fluid Scorsesian swagger to its chopping pace, pushing camera, and energetic emphasis on inequalities. Where The Disciple finds its lead pining for a past structure for success and validation that seems to be slipping away from his generation, The White Tiger’s main character is an impoverished young man who looks at those exploiting his class and thinks, if you can’t beat them, exploit them. He (Adarsh Gourav) is a lower caste man who ingratiates himself into the lives of a wealthy couple (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas). At first he’s thrilled to be one of their chauffeurs, but his close position to the rich family allows him a vantage point from which to see their privilege. They’re dripping in bribery and tax schemes, and no matter how nice they are to him, he’s still disposable. That becomes awfully clear sooner than later.

This inspires, in turn, our lead’s scheming and scraping, throwing his shoulder to the wheel of grubby capitalism to break out of his caste. Here’s a movie that deals with splashy scandal ruthlessly scapegoated, leveraged for merciless mutual benefit. Bahrani, whose earlier works are small observational films about American poverty—like the immigrant food truck operator in Man Push Cart, the orphaned children of Chop Shop, or the evicted families in 99 Homes—takes an emphatic approach here. His camera is often pushing or gliding, montage is quick and vigorous, narration is fluid and posturing. It becomes a bleakly entertaining, sometimes breathtakingly cynical picture of aspiration and wealth, looking at what this poor young man has to do to even try muscling his way into the upper class. It sees a society with a foundation of staggering inequality, understands the work and access needed to find a shallow success, and thinks that in a harsh world of winners and losers, even the winners are losers.

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