Melancholy and absurdity

MOVIE REVIEW: Two acclaimed films on Netflix give us a humanist portrait of modern India

The Disciple. (Photos © Netflix)

Chaitanya Tamhane was 27 years old when his breakthrough film Court became a critical sensation and won the Lion of the Future Award at the Venice festival in 2014. A film of understated power about India's Kafkaesque judicial tribulation, Court announced the arrival of an exceptional talent from Mumbai, a proud cinema city usually associated with rambunctious Bollywood titles.

Last September, Tamhane's follow-up, a contemplative drama about a classical Indian vocalist called The Disciple, was selected to compete in Venice again and won Best Screenplay at the festival. Now both films are streaming on Netflix. Of the surfeit of Indian offerings on the platform, Court and The Disciple are a duo of low-key jewels for those who look for solid, mature drama -- and especially for those who treasure the Indian master Satyajit Ray.

Tamhane's films are steeped in the school of realism -- not exactly the post-war grit and grime of the Italian masters or Ray's Apu Trilogy, but one that fixes its stern gaze on a society whose antediluvian inner workings mysteriously dictate the bearings of its individuals.

India, a place of multitudes and complexities, of tangled ambitions, struggles and desires, is disinvested of its excess and slowed down for inspection in Court and The Disciple. It may sound counter-intuitive, but Tamhane's strategy to arrive at the realistic essence of India (if such a thing is possible) relies on stripped-down formalism: the static camera and precise framing, the sparse cuts that make up each scene and patient observation of a simple action, the unhurried pacing and natural, documentary-like acting.

Court, one of the best debuts of the past decade, is a potent critique of India's judiciary system (and why not Thailand's as well). The story revolves around the ordeal of Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) a snowy-bearded, firebrand folk singer who performs fiery anti-capitalism verses in villages and slums -- a cross between rap and Thai lamtad.

Vira Sathidar in Court.

When the film opens, Narayan is arrested mid-gig -- not because of his politics, or not explicitly, but because the police allege that a manhole worker has killed himself after hearing one of his songs. Narayan is charged with abetting a suicide because his rousing words, the authorities insist, have driven the poor man to climb down a filthy gutter where the poisonous stench suffocated him. The charge is absurd -- the death seems like an accident -- and things get worse from there.

The old man is brought to court. Bail is repeatedly denied while the trial drags on -- and how epically it drags on. In the film's most astonishing narrative approach, however, we hardly see Narayan again after the first 10 minutes and instead Court follows three other characters -- Narayan's defence lawyer (Vivek Gomber); the public prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni); and briefly but effectively, the judge (Pradeep Joshi).

These judicial experts do not battle it out over the witness stand; we don't see them trade sharp legal manoeuvrings like in American courtroom dramas -- instead of that, we simply watch the lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge going about their everyday lives. The young attorney argues with his rich parents over the fact that he's still a bachelor; the prosecutor picks up her child from school, cooks dinner and goes to see a play with her husband; the judge taking a vacation with his extended family. Dull, routine, unspectacular activities that have nothing to do with the case.

Meanwhile, the courtroom scenes are matter-of-fact and perfunctory, devoid of any tantrum or drama. And yet as we watch the mundane proceedings, Court lays bare the absurd antiquity of Indian law and the bureaucratic indifference of those who practice it. The sketches of everyday motion performed by the lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge seem to hint that these people -- well-meaning or biased, kind or careless -- are just small nuts and bolts in an arcane system developed over centuries that cannot be changed. The film sends an eerie vibration because it doesn't summarise this for us; we just watch, from a distance, the huge machine grinding on. And most of the time, it doesn't even have anything to do with justice.

In The Disciple, Tamhane clearly evokes Satyajit Ray's 1958 film The Music Room. With the same formal precision as Court, The Disciple tells a more intimate story of a struggling classical Indian vocalist, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), whose quest to become an expert in Hindustani's raag music edges him towards an existential void and melancholic disillusionment.

Sharad studies with the haughty Guruji (Arun Dravid), a forgotten master whose feeble body contains an endless supply of mellifluous melodies. But Sharad, impatient to up his game, also believes in the devotional asceticism preached by Maai, an elusive legend whose hoarse, disembodied voice the young man keeps listening to on cassette tapes as he glides in slow-motion on the empty streets of Mumbai at midnight. Maai believes in the divine, eternal quality of raag.

"If you want to earn money or raise a family, perform love songs or film songs," she intones. "Don't tread this path." One must be ready to surrender and sacrifice -- and Sharad takes her teachings to heart.

But what if you're not good enough? What if, no matter how hard you've trained or how much sacrifice you've made, you know, nursing a vertigo in your heart, that it's never going to be enough? The Disciple is a story of enchantment and disenchantment, about the purity of art and the impossibility of attaining it, about inadequacy and disappointment. And it's a sad story because most of us are like Sharad: we always try but we know we're not going to get it, no matter what it is, and there comes a point when we realise that we have to make a decision whether to keep going despite the risk or, with lowered head and palpitating heart, to quit.

Court and The Disciple speak to us with range and depth, two realistic, moving, humanist portraits of (pre-pandemic) India. Pick either one, or even better, make them a double bill.

  • Court
  • The Disciple
  • Two films directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
  • Now streaming on Netflix

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