Your Next Netflix Binge-Watch...From India
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your Netflix feed is about to get some much-needed globalization.
By Sanjena Sathian
Here are just a few things the title character of Brahman Naman has sex with: a fridge, a ceiling fan and a fish tank. No, not an apple pie, but he might as well have. At first glance, Naman picks up where the teen sex comedy American Pie left off — except this film takes place on the other side of the world, in India.
And Naman’s director, known simply as Q, might say the stakes are a bit higher than those of the popular American comedy series. That’s because the main character’s obsession with sex is matched by a fixation with his upper-caste pedigree. In an interview with Film Companion after the premiere at Sundance, Q dedicated the film to the memory of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit (“untouchable caste”) student who committed suicide and became a rallying cry, not unlike Trayvon Martin.
Which provides a snapshot of Q himself: He is one of India’s strangest, most experimental directors, with a sweet spot for blending the extremes of human sexuality with politics. Naman — launching today on Netflix as part of the company’s months-long push to host new, international talent— is Q’s second major venture onto the global stage. Before, he was known for the black-and-white Gandu, which screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and takes its title from an Indian curse word meaning something like “asshole.” The film was banned in India, and newspapers even debated whether merely printing “gandu” was too provocative.
The weight of the past is too much.
Film director Q
At home, Q is also known as Kaushik Mukherjee. He hails from Kolkata, birthplace of India’s best-known filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, and Nobel laureate in literature Rabindranath Tagore. In other words, Q, born a Bengali Brahmin, operates within a tradition that most upper-crust, progressive Indians take for granted. People from the erstwhile Calcutta are supposed to be liberal, intellectual, artistic. What they are not supposed to do is announce at a Kolkata literary festival, while making a film of a beloved Tagore play, that you’re not that into Tagore — which Q did while making a cinematic version of the drama Tasher Desh. Nor are they supposed to cast their girlfriends in raunchy sex scenes, as Q has done several times. “Lots of people who make films here deal with ‘Bengali nostalgia,’” says Ipsita Barat, head of film studies at St. Xavier’s College in Kolkata. “He doesn’t — which makes him stand out.”
Oh, and they are not supposed to renounce their heritage, as Q does with me, sitting indoors with his sunglasses still on. “I’m totally done with Bengalis, and with being a Bengali,” he says. “The weight of the past is too much.”
Which explains why he is making the future with such fervor, breaking free of the stranglehold of his upbringing. One way? Changing his name, for one, which he says happened while making his 2009 documentary, Love in India, which investigates the spectrum of affection and sexuality in the country, from resurrecting sexually liberated mythology to filming himself and his lover in a number of steamy scenes. Somewhere along the way, he tells me, Kaushik Mukherjee, the Kolkata kid turned successful ad man, died and was replaced by Q, the self-taught art director who at one point made videos and charged a joint for each.
He’s also chasing the future by breaking the language itself. Though Q’s made many films in Bangla, Naman is in English — and the Bangla he used at first is hardly standard. It’s crude, the stuff of streets, “stuff no Bengali was prepared to listen to — the dirtiest fucking language,” he says, meant to make people like Naman’s comfortably Brahmin protagonists feel uncomfortable. Then Q shares an extra secret: Don’t trust his subtitles. He writes the closed captions himself and occasionally mistranslates the Bangla on purpose, using the subtitles as their own narrative device. “The language, finally, is cinema,” he says. “That’s the trip.”
Q grew up in the heat of Bengal’s leftist days, the son of a committed socialist. He seems proud of this, but then calls it a “somewhat traumatic childhood,” infused with the gloom of Russian literature and radical zeal. “I’m telling you, I’m defective,” he says.
On set, “Q is a mixture of chaos and control,” says Shashank Arora, the actor who plays Naman. “It’s brilliant to have someone who’s just not bothered with the way things are perceived conventionally.” But Q says he was relatively tame on the Naman set, insisting he’s usually “super hyper” while shooting and doesn’t use a chair. Gandu had no real script, Q and his crew once kidnapped the title character (with the consent of the actor’s mother) and the director’s workshops with some of his favorite Bengali actors can involve extraordinary amounts of nudity.
A onetime raver who now lives in Goa, the mecca of psychedelic trance music, Q sees the experience of filming like a trip — time expands, your mind expands, your body expands, he says. I ask if he means this metaphorically or if he’s actually on drugs while shooting. He looks at me almost pityingly, as if to say I’ve missed the whole point. As if to say: Who needs drugs when my brain is this wonderland?