Tamhane Against Time

The Disciple’s slow movement stands in contrast to its protagonist’s inner restlessness

I remember reading about the nature of time in German Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann’s 1924 book The Magic Mountain; and as often happens when I read something about time, it stayed with me. It’s a simple book, really—Hans Castorp visits his friend who is admitted to a Swiss sanatorium in the Alps, but before he knows it, his four-week visit turns into seven years of rest, recuperation, and routine. The book is slow, painfully slow, with the residents of this restorative resort plodding along, day in and day out, doing the same things over and over. This period of unbroken uniformity induces not so much physical or mental fatigue, but rather something psychological. As Castorp eases into stagnation, his awareness of time gradually withers away.

To me, this appeared counterintuitive at first. Time, I thought, seemed more likely to ‘fall away’ when doing something exciting. There’s indeed a reason why ‘time seems to fly when you’re enjoying yourself.’ Instead, Castorp suggests that it is repetition that, in the long run, truly speeds up time– leaving in its wake a blurry feeling of ‘Where did all those years go?’ The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. The passage of time is comprehended through mental milestones – the day I learnt to roller skate, my first boyfriend, or the first time I went abroad. Looking back, it is these markers that account for the time spent. But if I were stuck in a rut, living and reliving the same kind of day, again and again – perhaps time would have felt strangely shortened. As if ten-twenty years hadn’t passed at all, but rather it had simply been a single day on repeat. 

That’s the thing about monotony, it is in its very nature to stretch out the moment and simultaneously slide it into insignificance. Habituation makes time fall asleep. It’s no wonder, then, that large parts of Chaitanya Tamhane’s film The Disciple feel like a dream, dreamt by the audience as its protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar’s habituation lulls time into a sullen siesta. 

Nerulkar is a dedicated disciple of Khyal, a form of Hindustani classical music. The word ‘disciple’ fits Sharad like a shroud. Historically interpreted as ‘follower of Christ,’ disciple encapsulates Sharad’s single-minded zeal for music, which at times feels overwhelmingly extreme. Khyal to me seems like Indian jazz. The emphasis is on spontaneity and improvisation, but as the film takes pains to convey, this ‘spontaneity’ comes from years, even decades of dedicated practice. “Till we were 40, we never even thought about performing. We just kept our heads down and practiced,” Sharad’s guru tells him, an attitude Sharad imbibes without questions, vowing to continue what he was doing—practise, practise, practise. 

Thus, Sharad’s experience of time is coloured by Khyal. While most people experience time in days, months, even years, Sharad experiences it in decades. He lives in a world where you practise for forty years in pursuit of an elusive tradition.

Khyal literally translates as ‘state of mind.’ As Maai, Sharad’s guru’s guru, puts it: “ It (Khyal) is the state of mind of the singer in that particular moment, which he presents through the medium of a raag.” As an audience, we are made to understand that Khyal requires absolute immersion in the moment to unearth its full potential. And alternatively, a person with a restless mind simply cannot sing it with authenticity. This looms as the greatest challenge for Sharad who, over the course of the film, is repeatedly reprimanded: ‘Why are you so restless?’, ‘Where are you rushing off to?’, ‘You start off with something new, then you jump to something else, and then some third thing pops up. You’re all over the place.” Sharad is frustrated, and justifiably so. His single-minded dedication to music outmatches that of all his peers. How can he, of all people, be ‘all over the place’, he has been in the same place doing the same thing for ages.

Tamhane’s cinematography both reflects and adds to this sense of singular immersion. The shots are generally long, lingering well beyond their functional purpose in order to assert autonomy in and of themselves. Each frame strives for self-sufficiency, occasionally stretching for 30 long seconds to create a vacuum of timelessness. One sequence, in particular, is repeated like a refrain over the course of the film: Sharad riding his motorcycle through the night. The roads are empty and the lights are yellow. The drive is shot in slow motion, giving the scene a tone of suspended reality. While Sharad, in a trance-like state, is looking straight ahead; his eyes piercing some distant point on the horizon. 

At that moment, I felt as though I was underwater. Time and I, submerged, holding our breath.

A lot of long shots in the film, at once, feel momentary as well as eternal. In these shots, Tamhane’s work, though modern, harks back to a cinematic tradition as old as films themselves. In ‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,’ Tom Gunning gives this tradition a name: the ‘cinema of attractions.’. He contrasts it with narrative cinema, where “rather than a development that links the past with the present in such a way as to define a specific anticipation of the future (as an unfolding narrative does), the attraction seems limited to a sudden burst of presence.” One of the earliest examples of the cinema of attractions is seen in the films of French illusionist George Méliés. The causal narrative links in Méliés films are relatively insignificant compared to the discrete events. We experience his films as rapidly juxtaposed jolts of activity. We focus on successions of pictorial surprises which run roughshod over the conventional niceties of linear plotting. Méliés’ films are a collage of immediate experiences which coincidentally require the passage of time to become complete.

Before he was a filmmaker, Méliés was obsessed with magic—surprisingly or unsurprisingly, so is Tamhane. In fact, The Disciple is based on one of Tamhane’s earlier plays about a struggling magician. He is insistent on the similarity—or rather the complementary relationship between films and magic. “Magic is the only art form dedicated to pure astonishment,” Tamhane said in one of his interviews.

 The Disciple’s immediate yet timeless shots create a magic of their own. Tamhane has admitted to using visual effects in all but twenty shots in the film. “All of this, the long takes, the carefully choreographed shots, people think it’s about simulating realism. But for me, it’s not about that at all. It’s about creating a spectacular illusion, and seeing if the illusion works,” he says.

Time and our perception of it walk abreast—as one changes, the other inevitably does too. Depending on the epoch, when and where we stand in history, we tend to experience time differently. The 21st century has ushered in the most restless times. Frenetic and frantic, we ride the world on the backs of our ever-shortening attention spans. Which makes me wonder, are Tamhane’s shots really as restrained and slow, or is it just me who has become a stranger to consuming the same thing beyond its first five seconds? Tamhane himself is always distracted, and by his own admission, is “all over the place” while working. It’s hard not to draw a parallel between him and Sharad in the film whose struggle is similar. The Disciple could very well be Tamhane’s act of reflection on his own attention span. I would go one step further and say that the film goes against the sign of the times and, perhaps, even against contemporary temporality itself. It slows you down. In my case, it was much appreciated. After running for so long, I finally caught my breath.

The Disciple is streaming on Netflix. You can watch the trailer here

Neha Mehrotra
Neha completed her Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is currently working at the Associated Press in New Delhi. She is a contributing writer at ALMA MAGAZINE.