One evening last year, whilst staying in Kolkata, I came across a poster for the screening of a documentary titled Nabarun, an experimental telling of the life of the Bengali anarchist poet Nabarun Bhattacharya. I was beyond excited, because not only was the film directed by Q, one of India’s most talked about indie auteurs, but also because he was going to be present at the screening. Here was my chance to meet the man and tell him that he’s the reason I still have hope for Indian cinema.
The screening was taking place across the Hooghly river and after careful planning and a bus ride and tuk tuk ride later I hopped off at a decrepit street, seemingly devoid of people. I followed the street to some distant noise and I will probably never forget the sight that greeted me: A huge crowd following a naked man carrying a signboard (written in Bengali), singing songs and reciting poetry, again in Bengali. The man was giving us a tour of the area, done up with audio and video installations, graffiti, street art, posters and more. This was how Q chose to introduce his documentary to the world — seeping us physically in the world where his movie was set. I didn’t meet Q that evening because I was content watching him from afar, happy in his little world of film bandits and activists.
That was August. Almost a year later, speaking to him over the telephone, I made the mistake of calling him by his given name — Qaushik Mukherjee. “Would you ever call Snoop Dogg by his real name?” he asked me, annoyed. I offered a hasty apology and filed the comment away in my “Oops” folder for life. He was quick to forgive, explaining that few understood his identity politics and that it’s always a work in progress. He was excited about his latest film Brahman Naman, releasing exclusively on Netflix on July 7, a first for an Indian film.
But Brahman Naman is nothing like Nabarun. Those who are familiar with Q’s work would know Brahman Naman is a marked departure for the director. Famous for his non-linear, avant garde work such as the Berlinale entry Gandu and Tasher Desh, which premiered at the Rome International Film Festival in 2013, Brahman Naman is an anomaly — a straightforward and simple script, genre-centric and a three-act resolution to the central conflict at hand. Textbook stuff, really.
A sex comedy and a coming-of-age story rolled into one (think American Pie, Napoleon Dynamite), the film, set in the ’80s, tells the story of four sex-starved geeks who are obsessed with quizzing, and are looking to make a name for themselves by winning the National Championships.
When asked if he had to pull teeth to make a mainstream film, Q said, “Brahman Naman is a comedy. Comedy is a straight narrative — it flows in terms of time and continuity. The genre asked for it and I delivered. I don’t shy away from genres at all. I was a different filmmaker when I made Tasher Desh, I’m a different filmmaker now and I hope to keep changing.” Q who has also completed work on a horror flick, Ludo.
Brahman Naman was born when producer Steve Barron (director of the 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) met Naman Ramachandran, an Indian author and journalist, who also runs the London Indian Film Festival. “They happened to get talking at a bar and Naman’s the kind of guy you spend a late night at the bar with — that’s when all the secrets and stories come tumbling out. And they are almost always excruciatingly funny. Steve encouraged him to pen these stories down, and that’s how the script for Brahman Naman came about,” Q said.
“I was kicked about the fact that it was set in the late ’80s, a period Naman and I know very well. We grew up in that time — and we lived a slow life. We weren’t so obsessed with our identity and we didn’t have selfies. There was a different rhythm to everything. So the physicality of comedy changes when you set it in that time. And Naman is in possession of the filthiest mind I know, so the comedy itself came naturally to him. The challenge was to give it physical form,” he added.
The trailer, very NSFW, shows the young actors in various sexually deviant positions (involving fridges, fans, fruits, you name it) and mostly lusting after girls their age who are way out of their league. But Q explained that the film is far from misogynistic. “We’re showing the boys for who they are — sexually starved and confused. And at the same time, we give women power. What you expect is definitely not what you’ll end up with,” he promised.
The film stars mostly newcomers, led by Shashank Arora, who plays the titular Naman, previously seen in Kanu Behl’s extraordinary film Titli, which was nominated for the Camera d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. In a surprise casting coup, the makers also managed to bag Siddharth “Sid” Mallya (son of the now disgraced Indian businessman and tycoon Vijay Mallya) — making his on-screen debut as Ronnie, the smartypants with the golden looks, looking to give Naman and his teammates a run for their money at the championships. “Sid, surprisingly, turned out to be a hard worker. He had no airs about him, [he] was laid-back and he pushed himself every day on the sets. He’s done a really good job,” Q said.
While the film is mostly set in the city of Bengaluru, it was next to impossible for the crew to re-create the atmosphere of the ’80s in the now bustling city that’s home to some of the biggest IT companies from across the world. So most of the film was shot in the neighbouring, still idyllic city of Mysore. “In Mysore, we felt like you could reverse time and be back in the [Bengaluru] of old times. Also, we were running on a very tight budget. So instead of relying on sets and other gimmickry, we used long shots and slow camera movements and the actors themselves to convey the time and place,” Q said.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year, to rave reviews. And this was where fate intervened, when Netflix bought the rights to exclusively screen the film across the world. “They wanted to run it right away but we begged for time, so we could screen the film at other film festivals before we made it public to everyone. But we couldn’t ask for a better distribution partner than Netflix. A film like this needs a neutral platform and someone who would navigate the uncertain waters of censorship for us. So Netflix was a blessing and hopefully it’ll allow more filmmakers to make films bravely,” Q added.
Don’t miss it!
Brahman Naman releases worldwide on Netflix on July 7.