The Q questionnaire Cinema

'Human beings are essentially flawed, otherwise we will be angels'

Huge, cool, incredible: these are the adjectives that slip out of filmmaker Qaushiq Mukherjee, better known as Q, on the fact that his new feature film, Brahman Naman, will unspool online on July 7 as the first Asian original from Netflix. “It puts it on the top of the heap,” says Q. The film will be available in 192 countries worldwide on the same day and in 20 odd languages. Earlier this year, the film was shown in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

In the midst of thunder, lightning and a heavy downpour, after an informal illustrated talk on Netflix and other online distribution platforms (like Hotstar and Eros Now) at Gunpowder restaurant in Assagao, Goa (that is now his home) Q spoke extensively to The Hindu about how digital distribution has liberated him as a filmmaker, on genre-jumping and having Takeshi Miike as a role model and on making Brahman Naman.

Edited excerpts from the interview…

Do you think that the sanctity of a film is better protected with platforms like Netflix?

Let me give you an example of Kolkata in the 70s. My dad was a member of several film clubs. I was never interested in film so much but he kept taking me to screenings. I realised much later that these were not film club screenings. They were normal screenings of Antonioni and Fellini films at Navina, our neighbourhood theatre. When I became a filmmaker and went back to Kolkata I started finding things out. How did this happen? Then I realised that these single theatre owners were cine fans. They loved cinema, they used to go to Cannes, see these films, have a meeting with sales agents of Antonioni and ask for a print to be delivered in Kolkata so that they could play it in three theatres. That was the culture we came from. It’s about bringing that culture back: of curated content, of understanding content and then distributing it.

Of course every distributor understands content but that understanding is in the context of profits.

This is a crossover format of art and business. Like high art, cinema can also be sold very well. It has happened through the ages. The dumbing down of cinema is not necessarily the only way to commercialise cinema. Nobody is saying that nobody should earn out of this. We want to make a living as well but it’s not greed that propels us. It is a desire to make more things. More things not for more money, but for the sake of more things. You can keep experimenting and failing and achieving. The process, the development continues.

Do these platforms help in skirting censorship in any way?

That question is best answered by Netflix. That’s why I gave the (earlier) example. The best distributor is the one who takes up your film as their own –and then deals with whatever has to be dealt with. And it’s not your problem. Your problem is making the film and they shall get it shown the way you intended to. This is the crux of the matter. Censorship, authoritarianism or bureaucracy, regimental mindsets or public morality—these are factors that play in the domain of public distribution. Netflix as an institution or company, which is investing itself in this format, is working with its legal team on all these issues. It is being dealt with in a much more professional way than an individual filmmaker or smaller production house can.

You spoke of “the way the filmmaker intended the film to be”. That seems to be the most crucial thing …

It’s beautiful. It’s not my problem any more and I love it. Each time I want to make something people come and tell me that you can’t make it. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. You are asking for a certain kind of funding, that funding cannot come because of these issues. Everything is linked right down to the ultimate moral censoring on an individual level, not even at the collective, authoritarian level.

What about self censorship?

Everyone is doing it. It is such a relief to think that I don’t have to do it any more. We have been fighting to have that voice and still make a living without the so-called commercial transactions. How do we survive and sustain? It’s been open-ended. We have been lucky that we have had some European distributors. Now it’s a different story. Now we are not looking at small pockets.

Also, earlier you could take your film to the world but could not get an audience here perhaps…

Exactly. We were missing out on the sub-continental audience who are in excess of a million I would say, who are really eager for this content but cannot have it.

Now to the film, did the idea of Brahman Naman come from (the writer) Naman (Ramachandran)?

Actually (producer) Steve [Barron] and Naman developed it together. Naman never thought of writing this s***. Steve was here with Naman on another project. They were getting drunk and Naman was telling him all these stories. Steve went back to London and called Naman and told him that he had been thinking about them. So Naman started writing, Steve started developing it with him and at that point they thought Steve would direct it. Then Steve saw Gandu at the London film festival and said that I should direct it. It was Steve’s decision to send the script to me. It was very developed when it reached me. But it was not a shooting script. It was dialogue-based, joke-based. When I joined I could help in the process of making it a shooting script. I could add the physical comedy bits. I could come up with the transitions which could work in terms of my way of showing this world. That’s what they wanted.

You have been talking a lot about the breakdown of narrative in cinema but to me Brahman Naman seems to be your most narrative-oriented film. Did you feel that you were going completely against your grain as a filmmaker?

You have to understand one thing: that I was a nobody. If I didn’t make films like Gandu and Tasher Desh nobody would take me seriously. In order to make your presence felt you need to do something which is completely out of the bounds. Then swiftly I got to the next level after Tasher Desh. I was accused of not being able to tell a story and all this while I had been claiming that telling a story is the least important thing in cinema. I don’t consider it to be a big part of it. However, there are great stories told on cinema as well. I am a big fan of that, I am not against that. All I was saying was that right now is to do my own thing. I did it for six years. And then I took this decision that we will move on to the next level. Go beyond language so we went beyond Bengali. We are making English and Hindi language films. Also, go beyond arthouse. So step into the genres. We made Ludo — horror gives you a lot more leeway to do cross-narrative exercises. It actually told a straight story but not entirely.

Brahman Naman is a comedy. Comedy is a straight narrative. It has to flow straight in order for you to get the joke. When have you last seen a cross-narrative comedy? Comedy has to flow in terms of time and continuity. The genre asked for it and I delivered. It was perhaps the easiest film to make because we, our little group of bandits, were not on our own finally. Suddenly we were joined by Naman, Steve, people who really liked our work, who wanted to work with us. There was no hierarchy, we were in it together.

Are you always looking for that something new around the corner?

That’s the whole point. That’s why I talk of (Takeshi) Miike so much. He is a master of that: genre jumping. He would make a high school love story, then a horror film, then a yakuza film, then something like an (Yasujiro) Ozu film, then a timeless love story. It’s bizarre and he is making five films a year. It’s obscene and I am so inspired by that. It’s the ultimate case of multiple functioning and being on top of that. It’s so beautiful to be able to do that. My dream would be to achieve that kind of a level.

You have been talking of “viewing” cinema as against “consuming” it. You have been talking about this revolt, telling people to stop going to theatres, kill cinema as we have known it. Does that kind of cinema also pose a challenge to you? Will we ever see Q making a hardcore commercial film meant for consumption if only to prove a point?

It’s like this: I don’t believe in parliamentary democracy or the democracy of the majority. I consciously believe that the opposition should not be conscious of the power. Their power lies in the divestment of power, in the cancellation and negation of the idea of power. The fact that they can question is the power of the opposition. You give that up if you join the mainstream. If you call yourself an artiste you have to be in the opposition. If you join the pack you are no longer an artiste, you are a technician, an industrial worker. Now “industrial worker” could have many political ramifications but I don’t mean it in any other way than mass production.

Back to the film again, I was struck by how Shashank (Arora, who plays Naman) is so much like Naman. Did he spend a lot of time with him?

Naman was behaving like a British producer. He is one of the executive producers on the film. He was like “Ok, I will come for the shoot” and I made him do whatever and come there to Mysore where I was living already, eating idli and dosa in the morning. I also realised that now I will have to make everyone do this, starting with Naman.

I told him “Naman, you will have to live this life for three months”. We got the crew first and then the actors. For one month in Mysore, five weeks almost, there were two houses and we all lived there and shared rooms. There was no personal space, exactly like the 80s (of the film). No mobile or Internet. We had VHS. We were watching films like that. We were totally getting into that mode. Everyone did that. And Naman, was after all our protagonist. To get Shashank [Arora], Tanmay [Dhanania] and Chaitanya [Varad] and company out of their own personae who are the millenials with no clue about what that was [about] and to get them to this: it was so nice. I was happy to see it all looked so effortless. We worked on the speech. Most of them didn’t know the words in the script. The lingo was so different; people don’t talk like that anymore. The words that are being used are fundamental to the humour and these guys didn’t know those words. Cataclysmic—they don’t know what it means.

The humour is also very self-deprecatory…

Of course.

You were asking me if I hated the guys…

The idea was to hate the idea of Naman. What a horrible (insert expletive here)! That was our intent. But at the same time he is super sweet. You can’t help but think that “oh man this guy is so stunted”. His circumstances make like this because he has no other way. But he is a good guy. He is obnoxious but nice, he is nice obnoxious. I like that. I am myself considered to be a nice aadmi. Human beings are essentially flawed, otherwise we will be angels.

I thought you were asking for my reaction, looking at it from the point of view of political incorrectness and there is a lot of it in the film and why should it not be there…

We knew we’d be called misogynists. That drove us to develop the women characters in such a way that it was anti-misogyny film in the end like Gandu, Tasher Desh. What you start with is not what you end with. You start with the promise of [sex] but end with a slap. That’s what happens to these guys. I think there is a feminist message. My way of looking at women has always been that. Look at Gandu’s mom and the angel. Look at Tasher Desh’s Queen and Horotoni who overpower the men by using their feminine faculties, not by violence or force but love. It was all about the bhakti movement, that love will conquer all.

You are talking of love as a force of change but in your films there has also been a lot of provocation, taking the piss if one may say and there is the power of sex. Love is like a round peg in a round hole. As it happens with Naman in the film…

That’s adolescence. I was like that too. I would fall in love if a dog passed by, let alone a beautiful woman. Love is a strange thing. I started off by making a film on it. Love In India was my first film. Love is something everyone knows but has not touched it. What is this abstract idea? You don’t like paintings, you don’t like films but you understand love. The fairest of the fair claim to understand love. This is a weird phenomenon which human race seems to be obsessed with but nobody can explain what it is. Only though spirituality can you achieve its multiple definitions. I believe in the greater idea of love in the spiritual sense but I definitely look down upon the human concept of love. A commodification of love to sell more cars or houses in which a couple can live together—it’s love that has been appropriated. My love is not like that. Even in Brahman Naman, Naman gets appropriated by his immediate social culture.

It’s interesting how you are looking at this ritualistic, conservative Brahminical world and putting the tadka of sex in it…

My deep political motivation is to [stir] the status quo. It is being followed by every artiste in the world and not just filmmakers. Artistes like Ai Wei Wei or a Banksy kind of a phenomenon or a Badal Sarcar kind of a person who was always trying to destabilise the status quo. That’s the job. There’s no more to it. Opposition is not going to govern policies, it is going to critique. My job is not to follow rules but to break them. The gamut of thinkers who harvest change, that is all that they concern themselves with.

So cinema has to be subversive and not just aesthetic. You have been doing that, taking potshots with sex (and pornography) as a tool perhaps. The shock has a reason, isn’t it?

Shock cinema and theatre is a very old form. That is why mentioned Badal Sarcar and (Nagasi) Oshima. It has been developed over years of practice and the idea of human existence. The idea of time is non-linear and I could completely start believing in that logic. Time is fragmented everywhere. The opening chapter, preface of the Mahabharata lays out virtual dimension of time from an oriental point of view, not an occidental, logical point of view. But a layered, universal, complex way. I believe that it’s the universal governing principle.

Cinema is an embodiment of that. It’s critical for me to address that with every film. Sexuality is related to this because only through sexuality can you feel a loss of time. The only other time you feel it is when you are on a long distance flight. When you are [having sex] you forget time. You are so engulfed in your physicality that your brain stops functioning. It’s only your body that’s functioning. Brain is what creates your time constraints and suddenly you feel like you are fucking floating. That’s when you have an orgasm and you get the feeling of “wow eternity!” In sexuality lies the individual tension. The idea of identity is embedded in the codes of sexuality. I have been practising this over every film. Every film is a manifestation of this. How this idea is subverted, suppressed, repressed, explained, exalted or celebrated—it’s the same.

So sexuality is higher than love?

It’s not a hierarchical order. Sexuality is not necessarily higher than love. Love is sexuality. Sexuality can reach love. When sexuality reaches sublime levels, like Meera reached or Lalon Fakir reached or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu reached; they felt love. They are different tatvas, they vary principally in coding, in terms of how you access that sexuality. When Chaitanya is becoming a disciple he is becoming a she. If God is male then we are all females. Bhakti is feminine. Sacred and profane is deeply entrenched in our (Bengali) culture. I have grown up with these images around me: Krishna in various embraces. Naman is actually being driven by desire. He is juxtaposing love on top of that because that is the social perception.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 5:13:52 AM |

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