By Paul Risker.
Indian musician, composer and producer A. R. Rahman has said: “Comedy is a universal language. I grew up watching Nagesh, Surilirajan, Thenga Srinivasan and S.V. Shekhar’s comedies. And, of course, Charlie Chaplin! These artists are so blessed: they can make other people happy.” One of the gifts of cinema is that it can remind us that there are those universal stories. Independent Indian director Qaushiq Mukherjee (known as Q) and screenwriter Naman Ramachandran’s comedy film Brahman Naman (2016), which following its European Premiere at The Edinburgh International Film Festival launched exclusively on Netflix, taps into the universal coming-of-age comedy sub-genre. But Q and Ramachandran have crafted a film that also echoes their native countryman’s sentiments that “Comedy is a universal language.”
Q and Ramachandran are in part outsiders within cinema. While Q admits to never having held an initial interest in film until he had began directing TV commercials, Ramachandran transitioned from film criticism to screenwriting. And Brahman Naman is a counterpoint to popular Indian cinema in the Bollywood tradition. It is suggestive of how a country can culturally look inward and outward, adopting a more international and universal approach to storytelling, while still possessing a traditional if its own.
In conversation with Film International, Q and Ramachandran reflected on countering Indian popular culture, the process of filmmaking from treating the script as something sacred to realising its foibles, and the proactive approach to engage the audience. They also discussed the musical and the transformative nature of film and how it has resonated with them.
Why your chosen careers? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Naman Ramachandran (NR): The first inspirational moment would be when I was growing up in India. It was in a small town called Alleppey. My mother is Bengali and a big fan of the cinema of Satyajit Ray. But in the Kerala backwaters in the seventies, short of going back to India, she didn’t have much access to his films. One day when we were on the way back from school we saw that the local soft porn theatre was showing Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973). When we got back home she told my father that she wanted to see the movie, but that it was showing in a soft porn theatre. My father was going on a business trip and because it was a soft porn theatre he said: “Okay you go, but take Naman and the driver for company.” So we went and I was exposed to the imagery of that movie at the age of six or seven, which was a defining moment for me because up until then I had only been exposed to commercial Indian cinema.
The second defining moment was we then moved to Bangalore, which was not a cosmopolitan as it is today. It is still known as The Pensioner’s City or The Garden City. I got a membership at the British Council and I discovered a magazine called Sight & Sound. I devoured all the back issues and at that point I knew that come hell or high water I would write for this magazine, and this finally happened in 2001. So those are the two seminal moments for me.
Q: I had never thought I could be a filmmaker, and for most of my life I thought filmmakers were some other breed, that they came from another planet. And so it never occurred to me that I could go to film school. It was only much, much later when having already had a career in advertising I was directing TV commercials without much of an interest per say in films or cinema in general. I was always much more interested in music and so the defining moment for me was when I was in Sri Lanka working, and I chanced upon a VHS tape of Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run (1998). I picked it up simply because of the girl on the cover. Franka Potente had red hair and I also had the same colour hair at that point, and that was it for me [laughs]. My life was changed and I was never the same after that. I realised it was something that even I could do because of the red hair – weird people could also make films; you didn’t have to be an intellectual from a film school. And that was what started me out, and ten years later here we are.
Ten years on, how has your perspective of filmmaking changed?
Q: Everyday it is shifting because you are shifting as a person, and one is always learning from every film that one makes. I never take myself too seriously because I can’t, and nobody should take me seriously. So I keep doubting my abilities as a performer and as an artist, which I think is a great thing. With every film that I make I keep on feeling that I am not good enough, and so with every film it’s one step closer to realising the potential that one might have. I have made five films and a couple of documentaries, and I would say it’s at the very early stages of developing my life. For an Asian/Indian filmmaker at this point in time, because of where we are coming from it is critical that we produce a lot. India has a huge cinematic history, but it is mostly a popular cinema history and our popular culture is mostly about cinema. When it comes to Bollywood and cinema in India I am a big anti-establishment type of person. So I think we need to produce a lot in order to be able to counter the exclusive popular culture that you see in our country. And especially because of the technology right now, the craft of filmmaking is changing everyday. I feel very lucky to be born into this time and not twenty years ago.
Speaking of countering the “exclusive popular culture” how do you see the role in which Brahman Naman plays in helping to fulfil that vision?
Q: When it came to us as a project, and when I say us my production company Overdose Joint and the many friends who are working with me. We make these films together and some of us have been working together for five or seven years. We are very much invested in what we do, and Brahman Naman was a real exercise because it was almost like a commissioned film. It came to us with a freedom that is like the European or British approach to production. We were working with two people, the one of whom was Steve Baron. We did not have to explain what we were about because they already knew – it was why they came to us. So it was very beautiful because we had this coming together of all these inspired people to try to make a film that would build a different type of notion of popular culture. In this case we were invested and I can see where it has come out to a certain extent in the final film, while not getting into the tropes of common populist Indian cinema. We have been able to utilise the quirks, inadequacies and weirdness of Indian life, and at the same time tell a story that would be universally understood. It deals with an issue that is completely global and which everyone in every country is affected by when growing up. So I think it’s a great coming together, and that’s how I see Brahman Naman.
As the writer Naman you write the script and then you put it on the hands of the actors to bring these characters to life. One of the aspects of the performances throughout the film is the mix of the verbal with silent performance through mannerisms and expressions. Watching the film how do you respond to the way in which the actors performed their characters with this effective mix?
NR: Well it was a pretty organic process for which I was present throughout. We rented a house in Mysore away from the city where did five weeks of workshops with the actors. I would do a prep reading with them and then Q would do a masterclass with them in the afternoon. And one of the things that Q insisted on doing was to send the actors up to the terrace of the house every evening without their mobile phones, to interact with one another in complete silence, but in character. It was a device borrowed from theatre, and it’s something that Q felt was very important. Then later on in the edit we had this wonderful editor, Manas Mittal who was an ex-journalist and was going to be in Venice, Bhutan and Toronto. And it wasn’t a conventional edit in the sense that we just used the okay takes. He went through all the footage and captured the silent moments in even those takes that were not okay. So what you see in the final film is a composite of almost everything that had been shot, and seeing that come to life was obviously a big thrill for me.
As an audience we see only the completed film, which can come together in an organic way. Would you describe the experience of this film as a journey of discovery?
NR: Actually no. When the script was done we had the help of Rose Garnett, who is now the head of development for Film4. Q took the script as it were with all those pieces and treated it as if it was sacred – that we should stick to it completely. There are no changes and no improvisations, nothing. So we followed it to the letter, but then we found out that what read amazingly well on the page did not quite work onscreen. Manas then came in and he had to find the truth of it. He changed the order of the sequences around and so only in postproduction did it become an organic journey. Up until then we were sure it was working, that it wasn’t broken, and so we didn’t fix it.
Picking up on your point about the film only becoming an organic journey during postproduction, there is a perspective of there being three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Is this a perspective you would share?
NR: Well it’s like asking who is your favourite child. Having been through the entire process physically myself, I would say no, I can’t. Everything has to hang together and so I would say it’s 33.3% of each.
How has this experience influenced the way in which you’ll approach your next film?
NR: I am already working on the next one with Q, and having now been through the entire process from a blinking cursor on my Mac to signing off on the final DPP, the approach will be a lot more practical. We know what works and what doesn’t work, and from a writer’s point of view I will immediately think forward to the practicalities of shooting. There was one hilarious scene that we dropped before shooting involving a five star hotel blowing up because we didn’t have the budget for it. I know it sounds a bit limiting, but going forward I’ll think twice before including something that it may not be possible to achieve physically.
A key collaboration in cinema is the one between the filmmaker and their audience, and the incorporation of the quiz question title cards in Brahman Naman forces me to consider this collaboration. Is the engagement with the audience something you place an emphasis on, and are you actively seeking to draw them into the cinematic experience?
Q: I think it’s very, very important for me. When in answer to the first question I said that I was not interested in filmmaking for a long time, it was mostly because I find filmmakers to be quite dull and boring. They are either very much into themselves or it’s the fact that they are making popular and intellectual cinema. And cinema is pretty much a non-interactive medium, especially now when we can see it more than ever. It’s like one person’s projection on several other person’s realities and this is something great. It is a great art form, but I was never interested in it. I was much more interested in music and being a musician who reacts to the audience. You can play the same song ten times and you can sing it in different ways to different crowds, feeling the vibe of that particular time and space, and reacting and interacting with the audience. So it is actually dancing along, jumping with joy or leaping. Cinema was affecting people, but they could not interact – they would interact in their hearts, but not physically. Rather than calling myself a filmmaker, I would rather call myself a film jockey because I am not trying to implement my ideas on the screen to present how I see reality, or how my imagination works to then try to affect someone. It’s more like I am a DJ that is trying to give these guys a seriously good time. I have a set and I’ll be there for one and a half hours, and I will make you dance. And to dance you need to invest and engage with the kind of music I play. Obviously there are those kinds of people that want to dance and will come to the party.
This is how I see it and I feel this is very critical for Brahman Naman. And as you said about the quiz questions, in my other films I have had subtitles jumping off the screen and becoming characters. What attracts me is how the likes of Michael Haneke, Mike Figgis and other people have challenged the cinematic notion that filmmakers are all powerful.
NM: To be honest the quiz questions did not exist while I was writing the script, nor when we were shooting. During the post we felt that we needed something to bind the film together, and to also bring in the audience. So that’s when we came up with the idea of the questions, which have some sort of connection to the succeeding scene. It happened very organically and it was a decision born during the post production process, and across many deliberations between London, Calcutta, Goa and Delhi. It was a film done across four cities during the post production stage.
Picking up your point Q about your interest in music and perceiving yourself as a “film jockey”, outside of the musical score do you perceive there to be a musical dimension to the filmmaking process?
Q: As I said, I consider everything musical and my filmmaking is entirely a musical process, because I find it much more comforting going that way. So for all of our films we have done the music first and this sets the tone, the agenda and the texture of what we are going to do. And we sort of envelope ourselves in this musical world of which we create ten tracks, a hundred tracks or whatever we feel would be the ethos of this next film that we will be making. Everyone is inside of that music – the creative people will be listening to that music while they are thinking. It gives all of us the same sort of pace and I think that aids the production process, because it becomes much more of a dance than just work.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
Q: I think I would go along with that. But until someone else finds it works for them in a very deep personal and interactive way, then there is a great responsibility on the artist, filmmaker or musician while they are creating it. I don’t know what percentage, but clearly a large percentage of responsibility is on the audience, and this responsibility is divided. If the artist has been able to engage the audience in the right way, then they will invest in it, and it will be their story. They will be looking at it from their perspective and making sense of it. And the great beauty of this form is that it feels like it’s your film – it feels like you have lived in the film, and the characters are either you or someone you really love.
NM: Every film ultimately belongs to the audience. Yes, it’s true that you make the film for yourself, but at the end of the day you are making it for the world as well. So it matters a huge deal how the audience react, and so far we are lucky that the reactions have been positive.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
NM: Speaking only for myself I can say that this whole process has made me a much more humble and human person. I now know having been there on every single day of the shoot and post what everyone goes through. So in that sense I am much kinder towards the process. For the second part of your question, yes, it is true that success changes how people view you. Naming no names, people who didn’t want to know you two years ago are suddenly calling and saying: “Let’s have a meeting.”
Q: I would totally agree with you. I think it’s like school and with every film I am growing up – I am still in fifth grade. A film takes a long time to make and a lot of things to come together to be finished. It takes a lot out of you physically and mentally, and it gives you a lot, which means effectively that you are being changed – your chemical composition is shifting. Anyway I am an Indian and I believe that we are changing all the time, and we will never die either. But that’s another thing. In a spiritual sort of understanding, it’s like a pill that activates your growth, and that’s how I see a film.
Brahman Naman launches on 7 July, exclusively on Netflix. The film will also be showcasing as part of the London Indian Film Festival on the 14 – 24 July 2016.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.