Is The Disciple Based on a True Story?

Written and scripted by Chaitanya Tamhane of ‘Court’ fame, Marathi indie drama ‘The Disciple’ sees the director rising to become an impressionable voice in Indian cinema. The slow-burning story revolves around a nervous and underachieving Indian classical singer struggling on his way to fame and recognition as he follows his guru’s footsteps. While depicting the mundane everyday life of the protagonist, the film speaks volumes about the hegemony of Indian classical music in 21st century India, where artists are raised to mythical grandeur, and music is perceived as a hidden knowledge waiting to be disseminated to generations through the master-disciple framework.

While the film takes on to explore diverse and complex traditions of Indian music through its flawed characters, the auteurist lens never veers from meditative objectivity, lending a compassionate and humanistic outlook that is perceived to be truly universal. The music performances and their correspondence to lesser-known artists seem all too real, but how much of it is true, one would ask. If the film has made you wonder about its semblance to reality, we shall try to satisfy your inquisitive mind.

Is The Disciple Based on a True Story?

No, ‘The Disciple’ is not based on a true story. While the film takes many instances and facts from Indian classical music, it does not read as a documentary, owing to the dramatic coherence and complex character portrayal. The script was written by the director himself, which was understandably an intimidating task. The meticulous research on part of the director reflects in the film. Following his directorial debut ‘Court,’ the director took up a project that would center on the Indian classical music scene. According to the director, the first page of the script was hard to nail, while the rest of the script took much less time to write.

The director researched extensively, traveling around cities like Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Pune, and Delhi. He also visited the ITC Sangeet Research Academy of Kolkata to gather valuable insights. He not only interviewed musicians but also attempted to form a genuine connection with them which gave him a glimpse into their thought and everyday practices. Most of the musical practices shown in the film, including the guru-shishya parampara (the master-disciple tradition) are real. The director wanted a classical vocalist who could act and not the other way around. He relied on classical singer and chartered accountant Aditya Modak to play the role of the protagonist, who executes the task brilliantly. Dr. Arun Dravid, who plays the role of Vinayak Pradhan, is a veteran vocalist of Jaipur-Atrauli tradition, and a familiar face to Indian classical music enthusiasts.

The Alwar Gharana in which Sharad and his guru are trained is a venerated ancient musical tradition from the Indian state of Rajasthan. The apprenticeship tribe is noted for its brand of “kheyal,” a musical genre of Northern India that dates back to the 13th century A.D. However, the legendary ascetic figure of Vidushi Sindhubai Jadav is a fictional character. Other than her, the classical artists referred to in the film seem to have existed in real life, but some of their names are changed to keep the story fictional, as Zakir Hussain becomes Shakir Hussain. However, the names mentioned by the critic from America – the names of Faiyaz Khan, Imrat Hussain, and Kesarbai Kerkar – seem to have their real-life correspondences in masters from different traditions of Indian Classical music.

Interestingly, the film is a result of the director’s own discipleship of a veteran director. Throughout the course of the production, Chaitanya Tamhane was guided by the mentoring voice of Mexican auteur filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. Chaitanya came to be personally acquainted with the legendary director through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a non-profit program that attempts to bring established artists and young talents in a collaborative framework. Cuaron guided the project from scripting to post-production, and also took up the role of an Executive Producer. However, according to the director, Cuaron was a friendly guru rather than a patronizing one. All things considered, while ‘The Disciple’ is certainly not biographical documentation of a real-life guru, the director’s realistic lens endows the film with universal significance.

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