The opening wide shots of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple show an Indian classical music vocalist enthralling his audience in a small auditorium. In the third and final shot of the scene, framed from a lateral angle, the camera slowly approaches the stage where the aged performer is singing with his troupe of four musicians accompanying him on various instruments. Soon, it becomes evident that the film’s central subject isn’t the veteran singer but rather his young disciple, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), seated behind him at a front angle from the camera. The scene eventually ends with a medium shot of the younger character, his face full of pure rapture while caressing the strings of a tanpura.
From this point forward in The Disciple, Sharad’s joy in life begins to diminish in his endeavor to attain mastery over his craft, and so does his screen presence. Cinematographer Michal Sobocinski blows hot and cold with Sharad, depending on the character’s state of mind and quality of performance. When Sharad is full of hope and confident about his singing, the camera captures him from a front angle. And with each setback on stage, Sobocinski moves further away from Sharad and his line of sight, observing him from lateral angles. The cinematographer takes the same approach during Sharad’s night rehearsals in isolation, as the camera sneaks up on him from behind or from the side but never provides a frontal view.
Despite receiving widespread acclaim, The Disciple has been criticized for its cinematography. Those not too pleased with the long takes and wide shots have argued that while the fly-on-the-wall approach works well in Tamhane’s Court — perfectly reflecting the lethargy and apathy of judicial proceedings — the distancing effect in The Disciple prevents the viewer from connecting closely with Sharad and empathizing with his plight. However, in my opinion, the conscious decision to avoid close-ups and single shots of Sharad while performing is a masterstroke from the filmmakers. Just like how success eludes Sharad, the camera also keeps him at bay throughout the film.
Another interesting aspect of the film’s cinematography is the varying placement of Sharad in each frame. Only on two occasions of musical devotion can Sharad be found at the center of the screen — one, during the opening stage performance of his master, and the other at his own performance on Teachers’ Day (seen above). In both instances, Sharad experiences a good state of mind, and hence the camera spotlights him from the front. But in the remaining scenes of mediocre stage performances or self-doubting rehearsals, Sharad keeps moving away from the screen’s center. As the character loses confidence, he appears in the edges of the frame. Even in the trucking shots of Sharad bike-riding while listening to Maai’s teachings, the front wheel of his bike never reaches the frame’s center. This might imply that the hidden truth of Khayal music practiced by Sharad is beyond his reach.
No discussion of The Disciple’s camera movements can be complete without highlighting Sharad’s final stage performance. The definitive scene completes the character arc, and an arc shot is correspondingly employed to summarize his journey. The shot opens from a back angle of Sharad performing on stage and slowly traces a horizontal arc around him. Once the camera reaches a lateral angle in front, it pushes onto the stage, much like the opening scene. However, the camera doesn’t go past Sharad to reach the troupe member sitting behind. Rather, it moves inward and reaches very close to Modak’s protagonist, who struggles and eventually halts his performance. It becomes clear that the master-disciple tradition will not be carried forward as Sharad walks out on his singing career.
It’s noteworthy that Tamhane frames Sharad in a medium close-up shot during the climax. From my perspective, the character finally comes face to face with his bitter journey of disillusionment and accepts that he doesn’t have the necessary talent.
The Disciple an be highly rewarding if one notices and appreciates its technical brilliance. Criticizing the film for its slow pace and aloof camerawork is akin to labeling classical music as boring and tedious. Unless one is patient enough to pay rapt attention to the nuances of classical music, they cannot savor its richness. But for those who enjoy diving into the world of classical music and filmmaking wizardry,The Disciple is a gratifying double treat.
Arun A.K. (@arunusual) is a communications professional based in Mumbai, India. He feels indebted to MUBI for renewing his interest in cinema and also helping him explore the world of experimental cinema. Besides writing about films, Arun likes to occasionally dabble in creative writing as well.