Decoding the Enigmatic Independent Filmmaker, Qaushiq Mukherjee
While his latest film, Brahman Naman, gets picked up by Netflix, let us understand India’s most envelope-pushing independent film-maker, Qaushiq Mukherjee a.k.a., Q.
Q’s breakthrough feature film, Gandu, released when I was still in college. I was just starting to rebel and question constructs, lapping up anything that was remotely radical and vociferously criticising the mainstream. Gandu surfaced in 2010, a year after Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, and us avant-gard-post- modernist wannabes were mesmerised by what Indian indie filmmakers were suddenly up to. In spite of travelling to over 30 international film festivals, the film never got a public release in India, but was illegally downloaded, distributed and screened at underground film clubs. I remember sharing the trailer on whatever there was of social media back then, and people were calling it a “new wave in Indian cinema.” When I got a casting call for Q’s second feature, an adaptation of Tagore’s Tasher Desh, I excitedly prepared a monologue and thought I had delivered the best audition of my life. Let it be noted that I hadn’t found an opportunity to watch Gandu yet (torrents were not that easily available for random Bengali films), but I finally watched the film a year later, after graduating. I did not like Gandu at all.
I could go on and on about what issues I had with the film, but that does not matter. What is important is that a film-maker had the guts to make a film exactly like he wanted to, without giving a damn about cinematic, industry or societal norms and construct, literally waving his middle finger in the censor board’s face and becoming the hero of the underground film scene. Q had made shorter films and documentaries before this, like Love in India and Sari, and his independence of thought and disregard for conformity reflected in them too. But with Gandu (and the band that toured Europe, with the film’s rap numbers) he was able to establish himself as someone that film enthusiasts, globally, would find very difficult to ignore.
In 2012, Bengalis were collectively palpitating about what Q would do with Tasher Desh, Tagore’s classic dance drama written for children. When he off-handedly said that the film would be “Tagore on acid”, many eyebrows were raised. “I have been a big fan of Tasher Desh from early childhood,” says Q. “One of the marker moments of my adolescence was when I wasn’t accepted in a massive production of Tasher Desh in my school. I couldn’t handle the humiliation. Like Rajinikanth, I vowed that I would avenge this dishonour one day. Later when I realised that I was suddenly a film-maker, I felt that the time had come for me to act.
Tasher Desh is the most effective contemporary adaptation of Tagore’s play. It deftly handles the subtext of fighting against oppression with poetry, art and jazz, and Q revels in a visual whirlwind of motion, colour, expression and boozy haze, instantly reminding one of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies. The unique use of subtitles, heady reinventions of Rabindrasangeet, the set design and excellent make-up made the film a veritable drug for me. “Though it probably doesn’t show, Tasher Desh was hugely inspired by the Budhha series by Osamu Tezuka. Also, there was a great deal of musical inspirations, ranging from free jazz to progressive electronica. Kabuki played a role as well,” Q says.
Unfortunately for him, even after Tasher Desh, he was still defined as a perverse pornographer, given to kink and sexual excesses. “He might be talented and stuff, but what is with his obsession with sex? Why can’t he make a film that does not deal with sex? He is always talking about sex. Isn’t that unhealthy?” A contemporary film-maker (requesting to not be named) reacted in this way when I asked him about Q. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being interested by sex and sexuality. While Gandu, to me, was excessive and indulgent, Tasher Desh is a beautiful commentary on sexual and gender fluidity. Q’s portrayal of sex is not glamourised and airbrushed to merely titillate. He looks at the act of lovemaking with honesty and adoration — Q accepts how ugly, or disgusting, or passionate, or satisfying it can be.
“Thank you for noticing that. I do have an immense sense of respect and devotion towards sex and sexuality. Indeed it will not be wrong to say that I consider sexuality to be the most important factor in the development of a human being. Much study has happened on this subject, though it remains, globally, a taboo. This is perhaps related to the supreme sense of understanding that a deep introspection about sexuality could bring about in anyone. This critical knowledge, that could equip normal humans with a basic power of being able to understand or appreciate the nuances of the sublime, is something that society cannot, or has not been able to, allow to flourish. Social control is broadly based on controlling the information stream about sexuality and counter philosophy. This is why most of the groups, faith collectives or spiritual practitioners who analyse and observe human sexuality have always chosen to remain in the fringes of their immediate society.”
Q’s understanding and study of the subject emerge when he talks about his experiences, and the artistic inspirations he draws from them. “My first encounter with sex was the natural interest towards pleasuring myself. The first few years, after the initial surprise and subsequent elation plateaued, were spent entirely on finding newer ways to titillate and tickle. As I embarked on a vigorously and fulfilling active sex life, this primary training always helped in finding perspective in pleasure. Observing the works of beautifully perverted minds like Oshima and Pasolini, the words of Anaïs Nin, the images of Araki or D’agata, or the artworks of Shinto Kago have informed me about various aspects of sexual representation. However, the main impetus has always been human, and my own experiences.”
What does he think the responsibility of film is today? While Tasher Desh is socially conscious, his next film, the slasher extravaganza Ludo, made audiences at MAMI (Mumbai Film Festival) throw up during the screening. Sometimes, does he shock his audiences just for the heck of it? “I think cinema’s main responsibility is to be able to project human tendencies and fantasies, so that the audience gets affected in a subtle but physical way. Cinema’s fantastic ability to achieve hyper reality gives it a certain power. However, unbridled abuse of this power for commercial gains has perhaps robbed cinema of its amazing abilities. Now, in the age of digital imaging and a democracy of moving visuals, cinema has to undergo a major shift to remain relevant and powerful.” And who are his cinematic inspirations? “I admire artists who have utilised shock as a tool to break the ennui of an otherwise fatigued world around them. I was initiated into this world through the works of Tom Tykwer, Mike Figgis, Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Werner Herzog and other European directors. However, it was the style of the Asian masters like Oshima, Miike and Kim Ki Duk that influenced me more.”
What made him make Brahman Naman, a sweet coming-of-age comedy about a bunch of teenage quiz nerds on a quest to lose their virginities? Based in the 1980s, the film is adorably American Pie, sans the boring clichés and has already been picked up by Netflix for global streaming. “Brahman Naman is Indian cinema at its boldest: fast, furious and raucously funny,” says Netflix’s Ted Sarandos. “It’s a movie that will delight adolescents of all ages, and we’re excited to bring this hilarious tale to our members around the world.” Q says “Yes, it’s a really sweet film, which is incredible considering people think I am this beast. Which is true, but there are nice beasts as well, you know?”
“Brahman Naman came to me as a developed script, through the principal producer, Steve Barron, who had seen Gandu and felt I would be the right one to direct this script that he had been developing with the writer, Naman Ramachandran, for quite some time. Steve is a legendary figure, the guy who directed Beat It and Money for Nothing and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So it was an incredible opportunity to work and learn, and make a film with people who totally get you, who have the same reference points. This was an amazing and new thing for me, since mostly I am found trying to explain to people why I am thinking like a completely crazy person.”
Shashank Arora, who debuted in Kanu Behl’s Titli last year, is the lead actor in Q’s Naman. “Working with Q was a fantastic experience. I made sure I had no presumptions at all,” says Arora. “It was an incredible mixture of chaos and control. Q is erratic and articulate at the same time; I don’t know how he does that, though. It was a tough movie to make, too. We shot in 25 days on a budget, which is usually set aside for a single item song in Bollywood. But it was so satisfying as an actor.” And how differently did Arora approach the project? “Yeah, Brahman Naman wasn’t as depressing as Titli… I play an alcoholic chronic masturbator in the film [laughs]. But that doesn’t mean it was easy at all. I stuck to the script. That was enough.”
Many phrases and words are used to describe Q — subversive, counter-cultural, provocative, avant garde — but, in today’s world of clichés, commerce and clickbait, he might just be one of those few brave artists who make whatever they want to. Q is creating his own language, his own visual style, and in an era and political climate in which conformation is seen as the biggest accolade, his ability to shake things up and force audiences to engage in a new perspective is commendable and worth celebrating.