The Disciple: Art and Capitalism


The Disciple is a 2020 Indian Marathi-language drama film written, directed, and edited by Chaitanya Tamhane. The Mexican filmmaking genius Alfonso Cuarón is the executive producer of the film. The Disciple is a story of an Indian classical vocalist, Sharad Nerulkar. From an early age, Sharad grows up in the world of Indian classical music thanks to his father’s passion and pedagogic pursuit. As a singer, he sets his sights on success where his father has failed in the competitive performance niche, studying intonation and precise phrasing under the tutelage of a strict and quietly demanding teacher, Guruji. His life of dedication and sacrifice is guided by the secretly recorded theoretical teachings of Maai; an almost mythical figure who adheres to an unshakable discipline.

Despite Sharad’s devotion to his teacher and his art, the reality of life and the modern capitalist world, with its rapidly degrading artistic standards that threaten classical techniques with extinction, leads him into an existential crisis

Hope, Hard-work and Resilience – The Capitalist Virtues

In a capitalist social arrangement, hard work and resilience are often presented as virtues that warrant success; Because hope is an essential component of the capitalist dream, which promises equal opportunities to all in its “free market”. The moment a person loses hope stops working hard, he becomes a liability for the system, or at least is led to believe so. The general capitalist tendency of valuing the product more than the process pressurizes individuals to keep working hard. Stories of individuals who achieve success by sheer hard work and resilience are continually pushed by the system. All forms of art, especially cinema fill themselves with such stories

The Disciple is a rare story of someone who doesn’t make it. It’s a story that values the process and not the product. It does not glorify hard work, it bases it on reality. The filmmakers convey the message that sometimes resilience is not enough. Perhaps, even love for the craft is not enough. There’s a thin line between desire and delusion. The story tells itself along this line.

Sharad Nerulkar - The Disciple
Sharad with his master, Guruji in The Disciple

The Art of Compromising

Today, we are surrounded by products – goods, services, and even ideas that are designed to be sold. In this day and age, artists feel the need to make their art more commercial. Operating within the constraints of heavy capitalism and manufacturing art for the consumers often causes a loss of artistic integrity. Artists tend to compromise their art to be commercially viable. Compromising art can be considered as an artistic failure but the art of compromising assures success in the contemporary capitalist sense. The Disciple anatomizes this paradox mainly through the character progression of Sharad.

The Disciple - Indian Classical Music
Sharad with his father in The Disciple

Sharad is a student of Indian classical music, a predominantly traditionalist artform. He is constantly surrounded by purists who treat the pursuit of commercialization with massive disdain. Sharad, having accumulated a major portion of knowledge from these people, is a purist himself. His master does not believe in performing for the audience, neither does Maai, who he follows through her recorded speeches. Once in the movie, he criticizes a musician for having “no perspective” and being repetitive to please the audience. He has a distaste for commercial artists, perhaps envy; Envy masquerading as love for the craft. The Disciple narrates the story of a contemporary purist who nurtures a theoretical aversion to all things commercial but exhibits an intrinsic desire for validation. 


However, as the film progresses, the inevitability of commercialization strikes Sharad. He starts teaching at a school, clicks pictures of himself for advertising. and does not hesitate to accept offers for commercial shows. He unwillingly succumbs to the pressures of the market. In a scene from the second half of the film, one of his students approaches him along with his mother to ask if he can join a western music band. Sharad conveys his aversion to the idea in an extremely discourteous fashion. The student’s mother, infuriated by this, says to her son, “Is his father feeding us? We’ve paid him. He’s not teaching you for free”. This scene perfectly encapsulates how in a capitalist society; it doesn’t take much for an artist to be reduced to a product that can be bought with money.

Sexual Repression

It’s not a secret that India is a sexually repressive society. The majority look down upon sexual expression, more so when it’s feminine. The connotation of ‘shame’ attaches itself to it. Displaying sexuality is deemed to be ‘shameless’ and concealing it is considered ‘graceful’. The Disciple provides a nuanced and covert commentary on this subject.

Sharad is a well-behaved and civil young man by societal standards. His sexuality, partly due to the discipline he works in, finds little to no expression in his social world. In a scene from the film, he is sitting talking with a female companion late in the evening. He places his hand on hers in a venereal fashion. She awkwardly pulls her hand out and leaves. The dejected and rejected masculine in him masturbates to pornography after she leaves. This scene portrays how sexual repression causes individuals to be unable to communicate sexual interest in an appealing and consensual manner. 

The Disciple - Sharad Nerulkar
The Disciple – Sexual Expression


Another important aspect of sexuality that this film touches upon is – the commodification of the feminine. Sharad follows the journey of a budding singer on a reality television show. She starts off as this talented singer from an underprivileged background and by the end of the show, transforms into a sexually expressive capitalist commodity. In another scene from the movie, the camera pans to advertising screens that display a hyper-sexualized version of femininity advertising a product. It is a symbolic commentary on how capitalism productizes female sexuality for commercial gains and not for social upliftment. The employment of female sexuality in advertising and commodification, in general, is the perverted desire to venerate the feminine. The negated and neglected feminine has found its expression through consumerism and commerce; because it’s not being properly honored socially.

The Disciple - Wide Shot
One of the wide shots from the film

The Aesthetics of Capitalism

The Disciple is an aesthetically shot film. It contains a lot of wide, symmetrical shots; many wide shots that slowly move closer to the subject ending up as close-ups. It helps the audience understand the subject’s social and emotional position within the larger arrangement. Usage of static camerawork lends tranquility to it. This tranquility, however, is not soothing, it’s chilling. The perpetual tranquility of the film accurately depicts Sharad’s gradual detachment from purity and market encroachment upon art.  The creators have designed the Frames in a way that they feel empty and hollow. It’s a visually pleasing portrayal of a spiritually hollow world. The optical hollowness that the film exhibits is perhaps a symbolic representation of the emotional void that capitalism creates.

Sharad Nerulkar - The Disciple - Indian Classical Music
Sharad Nerulkar practicing his craft in The Disciple

Click on the image below to purchase the Roma poster!

Leave a Reply