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The Screen Scene: New York Film Festival Part 3, The Disciple

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

The 58th annual New York Film Festival has come and gone.  On previous episodes of The Screen Scene, I discussed a few of my festival favorites – Nomadland, Mangrove, and MLK-FBI – as well as one misfire, French Exit.  For my third, and final, installment from this revered film festival, I’m taking a long look at The Disciple, the new film from Indian writer-director, Chaitanya Tamhane.

Sharad Nerulkar studies Indian classical music under the tutelage of a master musician.  Sharad spends his waking hours rehearsing and learning about time-honored forms of Indian composition and improvisation. 

He rides through the streets on his motorcycle, listening to revered performers discussing their dedication to a form of music that will not lead Sharad to fame and fortune.  In one of the recordings he listens to, a beloved classical musician points out that a performer would fair far better financially from writing love songs or composing music for films.

In the early portions of The Disciple, we see Sharad traveling from competition to competition.  His playing is praised, but he never goes home with a trophy.  He chastises himself for not practicing hard enough.  As we see Sharad perform, practice and perform again, the audience begins to understand what Sharad does not:  he’s very good, but maybe he’s not truly great.

American audiences have grown accustomed to the traditional underdog story.  From the blue collar boxer in Rocky to a young drummer determined to take the jazz world by storm in Whiplash, we’ve grown to believe that determination and hard work can take you straight to the top. 

The Disciple looks at the other side of that artistic coin:  Despite all your hours of practice and training, what if you don’t have enough talent to be the best?

The Disciple isn’t afraid to explore the downside of chasing your dreams.  Sharad has no job and no family.  His grandmother helps support him, but even her patience is wearing thin.  Success stories are full of people who refused to take no for an answer, but so are stories about failure. 

At what point is your valiant pursuit of a dream just an unreasonable refusal to admit that you’re not going to achieve the level of success you’re seeking?

Indian classical music may sound strange to an ear accustomed to American pop, rock and rap, but the emotions generated by The Disciple are familiar.  A great foreign film taps into those universal things that humanity seeks regardless of race, culture, ethnicity or gender. 

We may not understand the nuances of Sharad’s performances or determine with our own ears that he is not the talented musician he wishes to be, but the audience still recognizes his dreams and his desires.

The Disciple premiered on September 4th at the Venice Film Festival where it won the International Critics Prize as well as an award for Best Screenplay.  India will certainly submit it for consideration by the 2021 Oscars.  Stay tuned to The Screen Scene to find out when The Disciple hits streaming and rental services next year.

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