Films On Spirituality vs Modernity in India

Here’s an excerpt from the latest edition of occultural author Erik Davis’ Burning Shore newsletter. This is from a discussion of a number of Indian films that explore the tension between spirituality and modernity including the recently released The Disciple:

“This is one of the keener flavors of the modern spiritual predicament, and by “spirituality” here I don’t mean the self-involved wellness cult but something more like an a hunger that refuses both the cynicism of materialist mercantilism and the authoritarian appeal of reactionary traditions. For obvious reasons, modern art and especially music is one of the places we can find and taste this flavor (or rasa), whether with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Strings, or Terry Riley, or Leonard Cohen, or, if we follow Chaudhuri, khyal. One of the remarkable features of The Disciple is that, simply because of the parallel of guru and disciple relationship, Sharad’s vexed relationship with Guruji can speak to this spiritual predicament without saying a single word about religion explicitly. Even the voice of Maai, the most old-school traditionalist in the film, offers hard contemporary truths rather than consolation, demanding of students “the strength to look inwards with unflinching honesty,” something we are not sure Sharad is quite up for until reality gives him no choice. “The truth is often ugly.”

“In the final scene of the film, we see how the fraying threads of ancient song still tie together, however brokenly, this yearning and this ugliness, or at least banality. Tarhane sticks to a single establishing shot (as he has done throughout the film), a frame that allows for both a cool transcendentalism and a sensitivity to the social conditions — audience, schoolroom, household — that shape what is, admittedly, a rather subdued drama. Here an older Sharad, now a father and working at a business you wouldn’t bet on selling Hindustani music, sits on a clattering Mumbai subway as a young singer ambles down the aisle, plucking a drone on a crude tanpura. “At the edge of a well, oh seeker / I sowed a tamarind seed,” he sings with a familiar melancholic folk pang. Sharad pays attention, and then goes back to staring out the window. No boatman, no one on the other shore.”

Here’s a few clips from older films referenced in the discussion:

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