Netflix premiere Brahman Naman is set in Bengaluru in the 1980s, a city and a decade characterised by braniac maniacs who want to conquer the classroom and the bedroom.Written by Naman Ramachandran and based on his formative years as a quizzer, the 95-minute satire explores the sexual adventures of three needy nerds who can answer obscure questions but cannot crack the greatest mystery of all: how do they lose their virginity? Naman (a superb Shashank Arora) has a perfect Indian received pronunciation accent and a private life that might horrify his rubber factory owner father and his housewife mother. It involves molesting a refrigerator, disturbing the pet fish, and making innovative use of a ceiling fan. (The bold sequences make this movie ideal for the Netflix platform, where it will be screened from July 7.) When Naman and his team get invited to a quiz show in Kolkata, they meet their match in a group of female quizzers from Chennai, who establish where India’s true braniac capital lies. The cast includes Tanmay Dhanania and Chaitanya Varad as Naman’s buddies as well as Biswa Kalyan Rath, Denzil Smith, Vaiswath Shankar, Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy and Sid Mallya.
Brahman Naman is filled with the signs of the symbols of the ’80s, from landlines to treacly pop tunes¸ but the movie also attempts to expose a reality from that decade that is not usually discussed in polite company. This project involves acknowledging the sexual frustration that results from gender segregation, middle-class Puritanism, and an attitude of male superiority that masks immense insecurity and anxiety over women. The director Q, then, is perfectly placed to direct Brahman Naman. Born as Kaushik Mukherjee, the enfant terrible has rolled out several cinematic genre-busters over the years. After a few controversial documentaries, Q made his feature film debut in 2010 with Gandu. Premiered at foreign festivals and never shown in India except at private screenings, the sexually explicit movie explores the dissolute lives of two young Bengali men and is a tour de force in provocation. Tasher Desh (2012), a loose adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s opera, was released in cinemas, while the horror film Ludo (2015) is likely to be released directly on the internet. Brahman Naman is as mainstream as it gets for the filmmaker with the cool stage name and the one-point mission to demolish middle-class propriety. Excerpts from an interview.
You were approached to direct ‘Brahman Naman’. What convinced you – the humour, the chance to send up conservative values, the opportunity to spoof nerds, or all of the above?
Normally, it’s the multiplicity of ideas in a project and not just one thing that grabs me. It was a combination of things – it was a very well-written comedy that I couldn’t have written myself, and it was about a time that I knew well. Most crucially, it was also about the ability to work with people to whom I don’t have to explain anything. They came to me because they know what my work constitutes and what I am trying to do.
When did this union of minds take place?
A few years ago. I didn’t know that Naman was working on something like this, and it came as a surprise to me when he told me that he had completed the script. He was supposed to direct it himself, but he felt that I would be a better director.
Every film is a new project, and I make a lot of films. Rather than any one individual, what is more important is what you are working towards. I knew we were on to something really cool. I was nervous because I have never done a comedy before, and it may be the most difficult genre of all. But the producers knew that I would get this. It’s not like they had to explain what kind of humour was involved, and that the film is a mash-up of a comedy and a coming-of-story. We knew that Brahman Naman was between [the Hollywood comedy] Napoleon Dynamite and [the British sitcom] The Inbetweeners. So the foundation was solid.
The movie has a lot – a lot – to say about virginity and the quest to overcome it.
I talked a great deal about this with Naman [Ramachandran]. He had written a kick-ass comedy, and it was my responsibility to bring this stuff out and push it in your face without harming the linear narrative structure.
For years, I have been accused of not being able to tell a straight story, and for years, I have been defending myself that storytelling is a technical exercise, and there is really nothing to it. This is cinema we are talking about, and I want to be able to look at other things. In the context of Brahman Naman, I pushed the cast. The theme of male repression was already there. We brought out the physical side. The script was solid, and had wall-to-wall dialogue and went from one joke to the next, but the challenge was to apply the script to the physical reality of the film.
Are the penises shown in the film real or prosthetic?
I can’t answer this question.
You are, in a sense, making the same point in all your films – that Indians are hopelessly repressed about sex, and that unless we confront this repression, we can never really grow up.
We are saying the same thing over and over again. It’s just that the form and the content are different each time. Ludo too is the same story being told in a different way. It’s so fucking important to talk about this.
How challenging was it to recreate the 1980s period setting?
We didn’t have much money, as usual. There are no production cues in the film that give you period value and tell you that you’re in the ’80s. My take is that the characters are in the ’80s because of the way they speak and the way they don’t move. We did not do fast cutting, and we used long takes. The film is set in a very different India, and we have lost some of our sense of that time. My idea was to utilise a time span that forced a certain kind of identity on a certain kind of guy growing up in India.
We didn’t do the typical depictions of patriarchy – Naman’s parents are actually cool and perfectly nice people. We also took care with the female characters to make sure that every one of them stands out against the boys. I have met some of these boys, and we were pretty obnoxious while growing up ourselves. We never understood anything, and it was bizarre how we grew up.
You usually make films with a recurring set of actors. What made you cast Shashank Arora?
I am super excited about these new actors who are coming up. They have a larger perspective. In Bombay, they get fucked because of the stuff they have to work with.
I have been working with the same pool of actors for the past eight years. There are several new faces in Brahman Naman. Shashank actually looks older for the role, and he has never done comedy before. We did multiple auditions, and it was a very interesting process.
‘Gandu’ worked brilliantly since it was made outside the system. Does it become any different when you drift closer to the mainstream?
I would love to do a Gandu again, but I am not the same person anymore. With every new project, you go forward and your ideas as an artist grow.
What is the mainstream, really? The idea that there is something like a commercially unsuccessful arthouse filmmaker is ridiculous. The issue is this: how do you get arthouse and commercial filmmakers together? This has been the problem for us as well as the communicators and the journalists who do not how to broadcast this film. I have given up trying to get something nice said about my films if people are not getting even my name and my identity politics right. Would you call Snoop Dogg by his real name? So I still see a great deal of work to be done.
Is there a sense of community among independent-minded filmmakers?
I am very much a community person. We have been trying to run Overdose Films [his production company] on the community-based logic. It is crucial to pick up young people and change them. We have been successful, and we have grown from being kids having fun into serious filmmakers. I feel a strong connection with directors like Anurag [Kashyap], Vikramaditya [Motwane], Hansal [Mehta] and Umesh [Kulkarni]. It is a critical time for us to understand what everybody is doing and see how we can put things together and work with each other.