Not for nothing is director Q (real name Kaushik Mukherjee) frequently referred to as Indian cinema’s enfant terrible. The Bengali director’s provocative and sexually explicit films push the boundaries of conventional taste and censorship. In his latest offering, Garbage, the shock and horror are not just narrative tools but symptoms of the times in which we live. The thriller, which was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, is available on Netflix.

Most of Q’s films (Gandu, Ludo, Brahman Naman) have not been released in cinemas. Q wasn’t even expecting a release for Garbage. It’s not just the explicit sex that makes Garbage taboo, but its critique of the contemporary socio-political landscape in India.

Garbage traces the intersection of Right Wing ideology, gender, misogyny and religion through the intertwined journeys of Phanishwar (Tanmay Dhanania), a taxi driver and Hindu fanatic in Goa, and Rami Kumar (Trimala Adhikaari), a college student who seeks refuge in the coastal state after her ex-boyfriend releases a video of them having sex online. When Rami reaches Goa, she hires Phanishwar to take her to a friend’s empty bungalow where she plans to stay. Meanwhile, Phanishwar has enslaved in his house a deaf-mute woman (Satarupa Das), bound by a chain and his whims.

Trimala Adhikaari in Garbage. Courtesy Oddjoint.
Trimala Adhikaari in Garbage. Courtesy Oddjoint.

Trash is both literal and metaphorical in Garbage. An overflowing dump is a recurring image, but the real filth is in the mind. This is what allows Phanishwar to post sexist and communally charged material online even as he takes shelter under piety in his daily life. His god of choice is an ascetic, Baba Satchitanand (Satchit Puranik), to whom he has built a shrine and without whose blessings he does nothing.

The rot of the soul is also what Rami is a victim of when the sex tape goes viral, forcing her hide from the condemnation that is disproportionately reserved for women. But even when she comes to Goa, the stares follow her, and even in her quiet moments, she is haunted by the trauma.

The shackles that have restricted Rami’s life take a literal form for Das’s character, called Nanaam (meaning no name), who, deliberately or otherwise, is given no backstory. Neither is there any explanation of how she came to be held captive.

Satarupa Das in Garbage (2018). Courtesy Oddjoint.
Satarupa Das in Garbage (2018). Courtesy Oddjoint.

Much of the film unfolds without dialogue. Goa is treated as an unappetising landscape, where there is beauty in nothing, not even food. All edible things in Garbage look distasteful, whether it’s a boiled egg sandwich that Rami makes on her first morning in Goa or the pani puri that Phanishwar eats at a roadside stall.

In keeping with Q’s films, Garbage is sexually explicit, but sex is not just a political statement here – it’s a veritable battleground. While Rami pays the price for embracing her sexuality, for Phanishwar, who seeks to be celibate, sex is a looming threat and a weapon to objectify and enslave.

Another weapon is social media, through which Phanishwar vents his ire, and which forces Rami to run for cover – and makes it impossible for her to really get away.

For all this layering, Garbage’s narrative thrust doesn’t always resonate, despite the fearless performances by Tanmay Dhanania and Trimala Adhikaari. In the last 40-odd minutes, the film descends into chaos and gore that’s hard not only to watch but also contextualise. By taking an extreme route to convey everyday horrors, Garbage risks losing the message to the chaos.

Still, at a time when most Indian films either tiptoe around political issues or shy away from the topic altogether, it’s significant that India has movies like Garbage and directors like Q, who push the envelope, even if out of one’s grasp.