Tuesday, 15 November 2011

In praise of a loser

I've been meaning to write a big, fat Indian Democracy post after recently finishing Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi, four years too late. Thankfully, that initial enthusiasm has subsided - thereby saving every one of my readers (?) from that familiar know-it-all (or at least, know-it-enough) feeling.

The present post relates in, some sense at least, to democracy. It concerns a subversive musical-comedy that grabbed attention some months back with a couple of provocative trailers (NSFW).

The director of Gandu - Q - made an interesting documentary called Love in India (trailer) a couple of years back, which dealt with India's attitude towards love and sexuality. Love in India showed how Hinduism's mythical past is rife with innuendo, at ease accepting sexuality, even worshipping it - a practise which seems to have been shunned or sanitised by mainstream religion (though it survives in several folk, pagan and tribal customs). In the course of making his film, Q interviews an interesting cross-section of people - Nabanita Dev Sen (who tells us that our simultaneous acceptance of Radha-Krishna's illicit affair and the sanctity of marriage reveals a dichotomy - most hilariously manifest in what many of my college friends do: watch porn while maintaining a conservative stand on women having multiple relationships), several of Q's friends and relatives, married couples, folk singers, artistes and a distributor of B-grade films. The last gives one of the film's joyous, most cheerful testimonials. He describes how he sees many middle-aged women in seedy theatres, finding the cheap sleaze revolting, doing "chhee-chhee" and facepalms; but still stealing glances. That, he says, is definite proof of the elemental appeal of sex - even as we are ashamed of it, we just love it.

This provides us with a starting point in understanding Q's follow-up to Love in India. Kanti Shah - India's Ed Wood, our greatest peddler of lo-fi sleaze - makes films whose thematic concerns are trivial, but absolutely essential if we want to understand India's attitude towards sexuality. The Kanti Shah Woman is a prototype - who dresses vulgarly, usually beds all of the male characters in the film and ultimately pays for her sins with death (usually at the hands of some virtuous male character who was swayed and seduced by the vamp's charms). Film after film, this prototype is repeated, as is the plot. However, there is no explicit sex - the most daring bed scenes involve obese males unnaturally fondling young women accompanied by lots of panting. Most notably these films are never denied a CBFC (Censor Board) certificate.

But Gandu has been denied one. Q has been adamant about not bypassing the censor board and releasing the film directly onto the net because he wants to take the system head-on (there are repeated requests for downloads on Gandu's Facebook fanpage which have been denied by Q). I think he's still hoping and fighting for a mainstream release. When the Naya Cinema festival of Mumbai wanted to screen Gandu, they expected trouble from conservative political factions and applied for police protection. They were denied.

This selective pattern of denial recalls the sanitisation of our myths pointed out in Love in India. Sex is okay for public consumption when it is couched in vulgarity (lesson: "promiscuous girls are vulgar as well") and chastised by a twisted morality (the vamp dies, the moral universe remains untouched); but not when it is direct, naked, celebratory.

Meanwhile Gandu has been released on torrent in a Preview Copy stage (basically, without the sharpness and colour density of the original). My guess is that the makers released it themselves, just to keep the over-eager audience placated. The reaction from my peers, generally speaking, has not been good. Those whose interests were piqued by the trailers were disappointed by the film's lack of a clear narrative arc (usually expressed as "where is the story?") and its irredeemable protagonist.

It is worth recapitulating our mainstream A-grade cinema's attitude towards sexuality and transgression for a change. Bengali cinema has had its fair share of "grittiness" recently, but in 9 out 10 cases where degenerate behaviour has been shown - the character has been given some sort of a victim motive. Sexuality has been touched, but mostly safely - the recent Baishey Srabon showed a couple living in, but their love was all about rolling around aesthetically wrapped in bedsheets and (then a direct cut to) a post-coital smoke.

The real departure Gandu makes from its precedents is not so much in what taboos it has broken, but in the way it has. Contrary to allegations, the film does have a story  - young boy doesn't like his fucked-up existence, finds a friend in a rickshaw-wallah, and escapes in drug-trips - but its protagonists are far removed from any of the cushioning comforts usually offered by mainstream cinema. True, Gandu - the protagonist - suffers from a victim complex, but his actions far exceed any justified reaction to his environment. The extended full frontal sex scene is not a wimp trying to forget his sorrows in lovemaking, just a sexually liberated guy trying to top his trip. The film's numerous rap numbers are wickedly humourous - personally speaking, they were more than enough compensation for the occasional indie film hipness - and work excellently as subversive critiques of our socio-cultural values. The very lack of dramatic narrative works as subversion of our demand of a "story".

The Indian Constitution gives us the right to freedom of speech, but qualifies it with the clause that one cannot cause offence to anybody. This, in effect, nullifies the right. (I am offended that people take their right to be offended as the right to ban the offensive.) Gandu is just the sort of litmus test India must pass if it is to remain a democracy.

P.S.: An interview with Q which throws good light on the sort of films he believes in. Also, I hope some people will go ahead and check out Love In India. Punk art is awesome, alright, but it's better to see things in a calmer state of mind.