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Filmmaker Q's latest is "Tagore on Acid"

Maverick filmmaker Q, best known for the subversive Gandu, takes on Tagore with his update on a 1933 play. Is the iconoclast trying too hard?


It is close to midnight and Q, often described as India’s most subversive filmmaker, is deep into a shoot. Cheap black and hospital-green curtains flutter in the background and the scene is lit only by a couple of overhead and side lights, besides the terrace’s own low-glow lighting system and three emergency lights. A skateboard is used for tracking shots and the camera is occasionally propped up on books.

But the blood that oozes, slowly and terrifyingly, from the mouths of the two elderly actors is the expensive imported stuff, violently red and thick, not the watery mixture commonly used in Indian cinema. Q is shooting a teaser trailer for Ludo, a tribute to Japanese horror films, dreamt up (and co-directed) by a longtime associate, the Vancouver-based Nikon. It will not be short of gore.

The 15-odd cast and crew members of Overdose—the production company headed by Q—go about filming the 35 shots scheduled for the night with the single-mindedness of marching ants. It is so quiet that locals figure out only hours later that a film is being shot in their South Kolkata neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, Q, a joint dangling from his lips, keeps aside the palm-fitting Canon 7D—his preferred camera—and takes a shot with his iPhone. The phone-camera shot, he explains later, has a context. The story of Ludo demands a long shooting schedule at a Kolkata Metro station. With the authorities seeking a fee of Rs 45 lakh—nearly half the film’s Rs 1 crore budget—Q covertly filmed reference shots in the Metro with his iPhone camera to complete a trailer for prospective buyers at the Cannes Film Festival’s cinema market. “What else do you do?” Q’s pockmarked face breaks into a smile, seemingly kicked at messing with the system yet again.

The terrace shoot showcases several characteristics of the Overdose work ethic: Low-budget, guerrilla-style filmmaking, a bias towards extreme cinema and its founder’s cocky irreverence towards authority and accepted social constants. The iPhone shot Q takes will be incorporated into the film at the editing table.

Shock-value could well be the USP of the maker of Gandu (2010), the belligerently titled black-and-white Bengali film that mocked many moral medians, including mother-son relationships and organised religion, overlaid with a vicious rap-punk soundtrack and finished off with a gloriously lit sex scene. Made at an astoundingly low budget, Gandu was previewed at Yale University, exhibited at counter-culture festivals such as Slamdance and was the official choice for film festivals in Berlin, Amsterdam and Helsinki, besides winning accolades in national and international publications.  

So, at the previous edition of the Kolkata Literary Meet, when Q announced, “I hate Rabindranath Tagore,” nobody batted an eyelid. Yet, an adaptation of Tagore’s play Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards), which released in Kolkata and Mumbai in late August, could well prove to be Q’s biggest test. Notwithstanding his reputation as a quicktime cinema aesthete (he claims to be no more than a filmmaker with a “music video sensibility”), the only other one of his films to receive a commercial release—the badly etched Bengali film Biish—impacted neither audience consciousness nor cash registers.
 
It’s early days into the release, but consider the figures: Gandu, shot with a core crew and cast of about a dozen people, cost Rs 2.5 lakh; Tasher Desh features more than 100 actors and four major producers, including the National Film Development Corporation and Anurag Kashyap Films, and was budgeted at Rs 3 crore. Three years down the line, Gandu, created without regard for either the censor board or the box-office, seems a world of stakes away from Tasher Desh.

In the long interregnum between shooting and screening, Q was quoted as saying that his Tasher Desh would be “Tagore on acid”. At the Kolkata Literary Meet, a song sequence from the film—a furiously paced, jerky and energetic five minutes—left the audience reeling, while filmmaker Saeed Mirza hailed Q for pushing the envelope of Indian cinema. The film went on to be screened in the Cinema XXI section of 2012’s Rome International Film Festival.

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On one occasion, though, the buzz seemed to backfire. On Tagore’s last birth anniversary, Q put up a ‘Dear Dadu, Happy Birthday’ poster on his Facebook page. While Dadu literally denotes a grandfather and sometimes colloquially refers to Tagore, the post, coming from the maker of Gandu, irked many of his 9,000-odd friends and followers on the social networking site. In angry responses, they labelled him insolent, gimmicky, wannabe, unworthy, publicity-hungry, shameless and threw in a couple of cuss words as well. “The folks at the office were worried that it was turning on us. Finally, I had to step in with a comment. That stemmed the tide somewhat,” Q admits.

Tasher Desh, then, risks challenging the cultural comfort of Bengali society with a sensibility that is ostensibly alien, artsy, brisk and brash.

Q claims to carry no baggage of Bengal’s—or indeed, Indian—cinema history. He has some kind words for Ritwik Ghatak but dismisses Satyajit Ray as “bourgeois”. He elaborates: “I admire Ray’s children’s films, which are often political in nature. But the rest of his work lacks any sort of politics and concern themselves only with issues of the Bengali middle-class.”
 
As inspiration, Q refers to the Dogme house of filmmaking, a style expounded by Danish filmmakers like Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier in 1995 and characterised by realistic storytelling and acting, meagre survival budgets, in-situ shoots, frills-free post production regimes, confronting social taboos and a general auteur-like filmmaking approach. On other days, he talks about Gasper Noe, Takashi Miike, Mike Figgis, Sion Sono and Japanese and French arty porn and shock cinema, a sub-genre sometimes aligned with the lurid exploitation category of moviemaking.

Clearly, this is a man who enjoys taking slingshots from the fringe, his target the large captive pool that is the mainstream middle-class. But having a hippie trippy Tagore in the mix ups the ante a few notches.

An entire wall is given over to graffiti at Overdose’s Lake Gardens studio in Kolkata. This is Q’s creation: A wired world of computers, cars and caricatures interspersed with cuss words, street lingo, political consciousness and phallic symbolism. The graffiti is dominated by ‘Cine’ in Bengali; the ‘ma’ drops off and flowers through multiple mentions.
Ma. Bengali for mother. “A value” and a “matter of symbolism” for Q.

Though they live in the same city, Q had not spoken to his mother for more than a few months on the day we meet. There is no apparent antagonism between them, it’s more a question of escaping the maternal bond.

About a decade ago, Q—then Kaushik Mukherjee—returned to Kolkata after a stint in advertising in Maldives, Sri Lanka and Mumbai. Awaiting the 30-something was his widowed mother and all the moral and social obligations implicit in the set-up.

“I wanted to do things with cinema and with my life. I could have never done any of it had I lived with my mother or within the family. I couldn’t see myself answering questions or being accountable for everything I did,” says Q. “I can get paranoid knowing that my choices are affecting them, but I’d rather be in denial. That way I’m protecting myself.”

All he wanted was to be consumed in cinema, says Rii, Q’s longtime girlfriend and actress in most Overdose productions. The two met in 2003, on the sets of Tepantorer Mathe; Kaushik was the director, a flashy, funky guy with orange hair, while Rii, then a struggling model and actress known as Rituparna Sen, was acting in the film. “I thought Tepantorer Mathe was my shot at fame. It was a video film, considered a low-class format in those days, and also his first attempt at the Dogme style of filmmaking. He showed portions of the film at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute and was roundly criticised. Many of those guys flocked to watch Gandu a few years later. But nobody quite got it back then,” says Rii.

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Tepantorer Mathe was never completed but Rituparna soon found herself “sleeping around” with Kaushik. Lust paved the way to love that has lasted. Tepantor..., taking off from a Bengali folktale trope, also hinted at the Indian thematic core that would be central to all of Q’s documentary and feature films.

By the time Kaushik had turned to Le Pocha (2004)—a documentary film on Bengali alternative music and lifestyle—he had already started moving away from Kolkata’s bhadralok circles. The man who reportedly refuses to collect his divorce certificate lest he be tempted to remarry, left his mother’s home and moved in with Rituparna, who herself was seeking escape from her bickering parents. The man was in search of a new identity.

Five years later, when his documentary film Love in India came along, Kaushik Mukherjee had become Qaushik Mukherjee and then just Q. “In my own mind I had to disassociate from my circumstances. Only then could I have the mindspace to do what I’m doing, fearlessly… I had to feel cool about myself,” says Q. His round-necked tee-shirt bears a large McDonald’s logo. Closer inspection reveals the M stands for ‘Marijuana’; a line below it reads ‘One Million High’.

Q and I have known each other since 2004, when he came over to the newspaper office where I then worked, with an invitation to the screening of his first completed work, Le Pocha. Over coffee and rolled-up smoke, we discussed a political party he wanted to form, called Na!, no in Bengali. For a while, we debated positive negativism as Q, with all the affirmative energies of a wily conjurer, made na seem like a hyan, yes.

Nearly a decade later, when I bring up Na!, Q has his answer ready. “I keep telling the guys at the office that they aren’t merely working at a production house. This is a political party,” he says. Overdose, with about half-a-dozen young employees and many others working on projects and renewable contracts, apparently continues to be sold on the idea of resistance but not—yet—sold out to market forces. When the largely self-funded Gandu made its first Rs 50 lakh after finding buyers in many European territories, Q distributed the money among the core team, most of whom had worked free or for a pittance. “Ultimate socialism,” Q calls it.

The filmmaker is clear that Tasher Desh—big budget, yet true to the ground rules of reformist rebellion—enables Overdose to work on smaller-budget, frequently self-funded films like Nabarun. Through their in-production documentary on 64-year-old Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya, widely regarded as the most vital voice of political dissent in the state, Q backs his belief in the underdog.

In Bhattacharya, Q also finds a resonance with his own father; both were staunch supporters of socialism and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Both, he reckons, reacted physiologically to the breakdown of the USSR in 1991: Bhattacharya suffered a debilitating cardiac arrest while his father was diagnosed with chronic depression before passing away. If the world is decisively divided into the two halves of Left and non-Left, Q knows he will side with the former.

However, the politics in Q’s films like Gandu—where the protagonist watches porn or masturbates to a background of street slogans—or the National Award-winning Love in India (it traces the evolution of love and sexuality in India, offsetting the sensuality of the Q-Rii relationship with moral policing) is understated, his work riding on his own experiences or the general seditiousness of the young in post-liberalised India. With their motifs of emancipated women, sexual liberation, anti-patriarchy and religiosity, and adolescent subaltern rage and anxieties, Q’s films tick off boxes that are aspirational and counter-cultural but explicitly political they are not, not yet.

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Though there have been many detractors, there is an element of regret in his voice when Q says that nobody has critiqued his recent work with any real impact. It is equally true that Q, with the good-humoured and disarming honesty of somebody who has earned his feathers, would be difficult to pin down. On different occasions, he has admitted to conceiving Gandu as a porn film, reasoning that sex was the original idea of humankind; to introducing coitus to lure audiences into a wider web of protest art; to not mastering any department of cinema but having a working knowledge of most (he is usually co-credited as actor, editor, cinematographer, scriptwriter, singer besides being the director); and as somebody, well, who is always stoned.

In the cinema-educated quarters of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, Q is sometimes seen as an upstart provocateur and sensationalist. With Love in India—an international co-production involving several global documentary funding agencies and an astronomical budget—and the international festival circuit success of Gandu forcing Bengali media to headline his name, Q has sometimes been regarded by morality conservationists as an infectious malady. Well-regarded cinematographer and documentary filmmaker Ranjan Palit walked out of a Q screening “unable to find anything of value”, while the feminist wife of a filmmaker who had earlier worked with her could not bear the scenes of oral sex in Gandu, says Rii. “But for every feminist who has objected and every stranger on Facebook propositioning me, I’ve had young educated girls admitting my work has inspired them, she says. “As for myself, I know I’ve devoted my body and soul for the cause of art.”

The idea of a revolt fuelled by the foreign and the alien is at the heart of Tagore’s Tasher Desh. A much-pampered but liberal-minded prince and his friend are shipwrecked on a strange island, the Land of Cards, where residents lead mechanical lives. In this kingdom of inflexibility, the prince, a bideshi (foreigner), hums the mantra of love, music and rebellion, till the stiff social structures collapse like a house of cards.

The film, Q hopes, will recontextualise the 1933 play as adult political theatre, rather than the children’s drama it has been regarded as for so long. In the fact that Tagore wrote the play after a visit to Germany in 1930, when he witnessed the early stirrings of the Third Reich, Q reads a political statement. And in the fact that music, flowers and love are central to rebellion in Tagore’s Tasher Desh, Q sees a direct parallel with the hippie movement of the 1960s, one that has “immensely inspired” him and which, he is convinced, Tagore foresaw three decades earlier.

“This is Overdose’s most political film,” says Surojit Sen, co-writer of the screenplay of Tasher Desh and part of the boho creative core at Overdose. He has played significant behind-the-scene roles in Gandu, Love in India, Nabarun, the in-production documentary Sari and an upcoming documentary on the former French colonial town of Chandannagore, near Kolkata.

The political manifesto of the film is apparent in an issue of ‘Q-Kirti’, a fortnightly page in the Bennett, Coleman-owned Bengali daily Ei Shomoy, which is edited and produced by Overdose. “We want to visualise Tasher Desh outside the limits of any particular time period. We are noticing that writers, singers, filmmakers, artists, actors and others are being made to work within boundaries set by the state. As artists, our work will be to push back those limiting fences as much as possible so that we can express freely,” an article on the making of the film says.

One evening at a Best of Open Mic session at Someplace Else, Kolkata’s hippest nightspot, Q is ready to go on stage with his band Gandu Circus, starring gifted musicians Neel Adhikari and Jivraj Singh. Before their set begins, Q does a slow chant of the Gandu title track, parodying it like a crude Rabindrasangeet. Soon, the singer lunges forth with bristling rap and punkish choruses, accompanied by atmospheric guitar and electronic drum patterns.

For long moments, Q appears like a freestyle pugilist, boxing at a sandbag of an audience. Like the reported one million who have watched Gandu online, the audience is transfixed by the spectacle. Twenty minutes later, Q ends the set with a well-articulated arrow of a loud mother-invoking invective at the audience.

Now, of course, there’s the matter of Tagore and Tasher Desh to deal with.