Qaushiq Mukherjee’s new film Garbage is grisly tale that revolves around a brutish man and two oppressed women. Phanishwar (Tanmay Dhanania) is a taxi driver in Goa who has kept Nanaam (Satarupa Das), a seemingly speech-impaired woman, chained inside his house. When not driving, Phanishwar, a rabid right-wing fanatic, spews hatred on social media platforms.
When Rami (Trimala Adhikari) leaves her home and comes to hide in Goa after a secretly filmed sex video featuring her goes viral on the internet, she meets Phanishwar. He begins to stalk her online. The three lives collide as the story takes a turn towards revenge-film territory. Garbage will have its world premiere in the Panorama section of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival on February 17.
Mukherjee, who is credited as Q in his films, has been making sexually explicit and politically charged films and documentaries since 2004. Q’s experimental filmmaking aesthetic ensures that his work is rarely released theatrically. His films Gandu (2010), Tasher Desh (2012), Ludo (2015) and Brahman Naman (2016) – the last two being straight-to-Netflix releases – have all found their core audience online.
With Garbage too, Q is not eyeing a theatrical release in India. “It is a fairly dangerous film,” he said. “My earlier films at least could be called funny, but Garbage is not a funny film.” But this does not disappoint Q, who has long been a proponent of digital distribution models for films and prefers to have a global audience he can reach out to through the internet.
Why is your film called ‘Garbage’?
Garbage reflected the kind of time I was living in for the last two years, personally and social speaking. I was feeling quite fucked. So I began writing and the script was initially called “The fucked”. It was initially a singular doom narrative, which later became a more straightforward narrative as the script turned into Garbage. After a while, it just wrote itself.
Parts of the story are based on real characters and incidents. The taxi driver and the girl who lives with him are composites of different people while the city girl is based on a friend who died last year.
Any particular reason to choose a name like Phanishwar for the protagonist?
Phanishwar [meaning ‘king of snakes’] is, of course, Shiva’s name, but the word also has other meanings in different kinds of pagan mythology. My character comes from the Bihar-Chhattisgarh area, and there, it is a very common name. Nanaam, which is the name of the chained girl, means the one with no name.
I had never been too big on naming characters. In Tasher Desh, the queen was Queen, the friend was Friend. In Gandu, the rickshaw puller was Rickshaw. But Garbage deals with a crude sort of reality rather than the crude fantasy of my earlier films. So, it was critical to find these names.
This is your first film set in Goa. After living for a long time in Sri Lanka, and then Kolkata, you have made Goa your base.
When I used to live in Mumbai, I regularly visited Goa. The landscape and the music influenced me a lot. When I moved to Sri Lanka, I realised just how much I love the process of life in Goa and how much I enjoyed living in that space. Then, I experienced city life in Kolkata for 10 years, and there, I understood that the thing I miss the most is silence. And the gentleness with which people behave in tropical climates. I am 43 now and I think I deserve some silence.
How has Goa changed from the time you made your early visits to now?
Two things have happened. One is that the politics of Goa has changed substantially, which has been evident from the last two elections. While that has happened, simultaneously, a huge development in political consciousness has occurred that is much bigger than any other place in India, even Kolkata. The opposition to the sort of partisan politics happening on ground has been rapid. The mining protests and the Supreme Court’s order last week in favour of the protest movement is an example. This makes Goa a very important place to be in. One could argue that Goa is one of the few places in India where people’s very way of living is very political.
Also, for the last three-four years, Goa has seen a steady influx of very interesting and compelling artists who are in the middle of their career. They have come to Goa looking for space and a more conducive environment to work in. It has certainly worked for me.
The more repressive an environment gets, the more daring the cinema should get politically, right?
It is supposed to be that way for sure, but when you look around, there is very little to validate that thought in India. I am still hopeful that my peer group is attempting to get more vocal about expressing their political ideas. The problem is that in India, cinema is controlled by commercial interests which makes it difficult for anyone to comment on anything.
From a punk coming-of-age film (‘Gandu’) to an idiosyncratic Tagore adaption (‘Tasher Desh’) to a horror film (‘Ludo’) and then a comedy (‘Brahman Naman’), how would you assess your growth as a filmmaker?
Well, now I have way more white hair, which needs to be earned. I have obviously changed but I don’t know how much. My whole idea of making films have grown from being merely an interest to an actual obsession. But above all, my interest in cinema remains the same. I am still very excited about the medium and its possibilities. I realise that we had a great run in the last ten years when digital cinema disrupted the traditional economics of filmmaking bit by bit.
But now those systems are building themselves up again. People are ditching the smaller, quicker cameras and are going for 4K and 8K. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been much experimentation with the complexities of narrative.
I am very keen to see the films screening at Berlin. There’s a whole lot of stuff out there that I don’t know and that I am waiting to get inspired by.
Any particular film you are looking forward to in Berlin?
Kim Ki-duk’s new film Human, Space, Time and Human. It is screening in the Panorama section alongside Garbage and that feels like an extremely gratifying validation of my work. He has been a huge influence. I have referenced his film The Isle in Garbage too.
Why is ‘Garbage’ the only Indian feature film at the festival?
Because over the last three-four years, it has become clear that there are not many people in the country who making films of international quality. The ones who are are getting that international audience. Basically, no one knows how international attention can be translated into economics in Indian terms. That is why there is no interest. We don’t look at cinema as any kind of art, we look at it like a product.
You have said that you don’t know if ‘Garbage’ will be released in India. Don’t you yearn for a theatrical release so that people can experience your films on a big screen?
I have always been more interested in one person experiencing my film at a time rather than a collective engaging with my cinema. I think one person’s engagement has more scope for a critical relationship rather than 300 persons seeing my film at a time. But the nature of my films and the quality of standards I aspire to maintain leads to my films being screened at the world’s best festivals which provide the best big-screen experience possible. So, I get the best of both worlds.
What are you working on next?
I am working on other films. Besides that, I have just shot a super fun action series called Zero Kilometres for a new online platform called Zee5. It was a great departure from Garbage as I needed to break away from the darkness of that film.