He had them at the title.
There wasn’t an empty seat at the premiere of Amitabh Chakraborty’s Bengali movie Cosmic Sex at the Osian’s-Cinefan film festival in Delhi in August. Delegates crammed into the 1,865-seater Auditorium 1 at the Siri Fort complex, seduced by the promise of uncensored sexual intercourse in an Indian film (they weren’t disappointed). The presence of lead actor Rii, easily one of the most uninhibited women in Indian cinema, further electrified the crowd.
The diminutive beauty, who hands out lessons in desire and sexual fulfilment to a truth-seeking young man, gamely took on questions after the screening about whether she was “as erotic as her character” and what she thought of Sigmund Freud. A few questions were about the movie’s exploration of the idea of achieving spiritual equilibrium through sex. But people mostly wanted to take a closer look at the actor who is the face of an exciting and promising strain of independent film-making. It’s experimental, transgressive, idiosyncratic and phantasmagorical and it is emerging out of the most relaxed among the metropolises—Kolkata.
The West Bengal capital has a long-established tradition of radical and independent-spirited film-makers, from Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray to Subrata Sen and Suman Mukhopadhyay. So it is only natural that the city is producing several fascinating experiments in documentaries and features.
Rii is the common link between a set of films that has been challenging the norms of acceptability and decorum in the past few years. She has appeared in her partner Q’s Bishh, Gandu and the forthcoming Tasher Desh, apart from his documentary Love in India. Rii has also been featured in Shyamal Karmakar’s documentary Many Stories of Love And Hate. Except for Bishh, which was released in cinemas, these films have rarely been seen outside of special screenings and festivals.
It’s not hard to see why the Central Board of Film Certification would baulk at giving a certificate to Gandu, whose very title is an affront to conservative ears, or Cosmic Sex, whose serious approach to its subject is likely to be eclipsed by its handful of graphic scenes.
Cosmic Sex includes ideas previously explored by 53-year-old Chakraborty in his 2006 documentary Bishar Blues, about Bengal’s Muslim fakir tradition. A young man named Kripa encounters a prostitute, a eunuch and, most crucially, a female ascetic named Sadhana on his journey of sexual self-discovery. Kripa’s experiences unfold as a reverie amid a mythic landscape that is identifiably the Bengal of wandering ascetics and miracle workers.
“Cults like the fakirs and the Bauls feel that sexual energy is the most powerful force that flows outwards all the time, because of which there are manifestations of happiness, unhappiness and death,” Chakraborty says at his home in Kolkata. “The only way to get out of this is to reverse the sexual energy. You have to go back to the unchanging energy source.”
Cosmic Sex is only Chakraborty’s second movie in 23 years after his experimental debut Kaal Abhirati. He is keen on releasing Cosmic Sex, made for a meagre Rs.80 lakh, in cinemas, preferably uncut. “I want a theatrical release—I want to ask my society if I can show this,” Chakraborty says. “I will go to the censors, the courts, the works. It’s a big risk that only a fool can take. I am the grand fool.”
Audiences will be more surprised than shocked when Cosmic Sex eventually arrives in cinemas, says Putul Mahmood, the film’s producer. “There is an audience for this kind of cinema, but it’s perceived as niche only because censors and distributors lock up such films,” she says. “People can go in for the kicks, but let them experience the film and talk about it later. You can’t masturbate to this film.”
Q’s musical Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards) is likely to come to cinemas first. Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s operatic critique of social rigidity, which was inspired by Lewis Carroll and written in 1933, Q’s fantasy adventure, about a prince who strains at his royal leash, will be premiered at the International Rome Film Festival in November and will be released in India in 2013.
Q says Tasher Desh has been in the making ever since he decided to become a film-maker. “Tasher Desh is an immensely popular production that is usually treated as a kids’ play,” he says. “In the neighbourhood in which I grew up, the guy who could sing would get the central character, the prince. I was the prince for the neighbourhood, but then I got demoted when the play was performed at school. I was horribly disappointed and vowed that this would be avenged.”
A trailer reveals that like in Gandu, Q is jettisoning conventional storytelling modes in favour of an audio-visual head rush through a theatrical acting style, hand-held, highly mobile camerawork and rapid-fire editing. The film has been shot in West Bengal and Sri Lanka by Manuel Dacosse from Belgium. Q originally wanted the cinematographers who had worked with phantasmagoria specialists Takashi Miike and Gaspar Noé. “I didn’t care for the story—it is an experience, with its songs and its exotica,” Q says. “I believe in the present moment, not in stories. Tasher Desh is structured like a fairy tale, it’s metaphysical and metaphorical.”
Tasher Desh has been produced by Q’s outfit Overdose, Kolkata-based recording studio Dream Digital, Belgian company Entre Chien Et Loup, the National Film Development Corporation and Anurag Kashyap Films. The movie brings Q a few steps out of the Kolkata underground and into the mainstream—sort of. “I don’t think Tasher Desh will bring us into a mainstream that means palatable and marketable,” Q says. “I am trying to counter the fact that we don’t have channels of distribution for alternate content.”
Gandu, made in 2010, was never meant to be released. The experiment in extreme cinema that more people have heard of than seen was a break-out for Q and a breakaway from the realism and restraint usually found in commercial film-making. The mostly black and white movie, starring Anubrata Basu, Rii and Joyraj Bhattacharya, follows an angst-ridden young man’s journey towards self-fulfilment through highly stylized camerawork, choppy editing and interludes of profane Bengali rap. The protagonist’s claustrophobia, stemming from his sterile surroundings and his sense of emasculation, literally explodes in a no-holds-barred colour sequence of sexual intercourse, which has earned the film eternal notoriety.
“None of the 1970s guys,” Q says, referring to older Bengali film-makers, “had the time or space to explore sexuality.” The directors “were so caught up in social issues that they couldn’t look at their dicks”, he adds. “For us, that is one thing that resonates. They didn’t explore sex, so I felt that if I explore that, you can’t link me to those guys.”
"I want a theatrical release—I want to ask my society if I can show this, I will go to the censors, the courts, the works. It’s a big risk that only a fool can take. I am the grand fool."
Q is an agent provocateur with a plan. He has been assiduously working towards creating an alternative system of finance and distribution with Overdose (its business cards promise “explosive Indian content”). He collaborates with a tightly knit group of like-minded souls, some of whom he has grown up with, in the production of “cheap and dirty pictures about sexual, social or political extreme content that otherwise can’t be made”, on budgets of Rs.25-30 lakh, that will subsidize each other.
“Since a production house can’t operate on one production, our strategy is to go for two kinds of cinema,” he says. “We can make films like Tasher Desh, which is nothing like Gandu but carries the same spirit. If that works out, we have a killer set-up—we can make cheap, extreme films that are not bound by distribution in India.” The British sales agency Jinga Films distributed Gandu in foreign territories. “We can recoup the money internationally as well as keep up the fight of pushing the boundaries of viewership.”
The label Bangla Black has been set up expressly to launch regular attacks on the system. “These are all gambles, high-velocity risks, but they are not uncalculated,” Q says. Overdose Films has its hands full over the next several months: Q is also working on a documentary, Sari, a martial arts film and a project about radical writer and poet Nabarun Bhattacharya, while his company will handle the line production for three international projects to be shot in Kolkata, including the trafficking drama Sold and a horror flick.
Q honed his film-making skills in advertising in Mumbai and Sri Lanka. Back then, he was known as Kaushik Mukherjee, but is credited as “Qaushik” in his 2003 documentary Le Pocha, about the independent music scene in Kolkata. “I became Q slowly, through a painful birth,” he says. “Kaushik was being spelt with a K or a Q. As a kid I was known as Babla and all my friends call me that. Except for the teacher who took my attendance, nobody called me Kaushik.” Changing his name was part of a process of adopting a new persona, of taking the idea of Bengali daak naams, or pet names, to its logical conclusion. “Q is like an ornament, an imaginative device, an artistic identity,” he says. “It’s still Kaushik Mukherjee who signs the cheques.”
His partner in cinema and in life, Rii, officially Rituparna Sen, has the daak naam Payal, but is Goltu to Q and friends. When she met Q in 2003, she had spent two years modelling and acting in television. She thought his debut feature Tepantorer Mathe would give her a foothold in the movies. “I thought the film would make me a star, but I was heartbroken when I found it was not going to come out,” she says.
The two started seeing each other, and Rii got introduced to the film-makers who would turn out to be the leading lights of Kolkata Candid: Shyamal Karmakar, who edited Tepantorer Mathe, and Amitabh Chakraborty, who was making Bishar Blues. “I love films that are challenging and borderline and dangerous,” Rii says. “I will do anything for these three film-makers—they are crazy and difficult, but I love their work. Lust is not their prime focus.”
Karmakar, an editor who trained at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, is one of Q’s major inspirations. Karmakar’s documentary I Am the Very Beautiful, made in 2006, is a genre-defying exploration of the film-maker’s desire for a bar singer named Ranu Gayen. Karmakar makes no bones about his attraction to Gayen, who is attached to his friend. He asks her to sleep with him and films her semi-naked. Gayen is no shrinking violet either, and as director and subject come dangerously close, the documentary explores the nature of voyeurism and the difficulty of maintaining a pretence of objectivity or distance. Karmakar is in thrall of female sexuality, and unlike many other film-makers, he doesn’t pretend otherwise.
“My idea of sexuality was ruptured in Pune,” says 48-year-old Karmakar at his office at the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute in Kolkata, where he heads the editing department. “I fell in love with women with different moralities and attitudes to morality.” Some film-makers explore dreams, some nightmares, while others confront their sexual fantasies, he says. “I want to tell the truth,” Karmakar says. “I am very scared to tell my stories, but telling them is important.”
He has several ideas in the pipeline, including one about an 11-year-girl on the verge of menstruation, and another that explores changing attitudes towards politics and sexuality through the experiences of a tribal couple. He also wants to make a film about a city journalist who wants to redesign her body because she is tired of the way men look at her. Apart from this, Karmakar is working on a documentary about families that have been displaced by a sewerage project.
“There are very few places to screen your films in Kolkata,” he observes. “But it helps to be under the radar. The less I am seen by people, the better for me.”
Perhaps there is no better place than Kolkata to unleash the private into the public. “If you look at what’s happening in Bengali cinema, it’s been brewing for over a decade and a half,” says Moinak Biswas, professor at Jadavpur University’s film studies department. “Things have come to a head—there is an all-time record of production in Bengali cinema. Soon, most of these films will find it difficult to get a release.”
A film like Gandu came as “a slap on the face” of a wave of domestic dramas that were “stifling and didn’t show anything happening beyond well-furnished middle-class homes”, Biswas says. “What was unconvincing and disturbing about Gandu was a very male and adolescent expression. I think Amitabh is much more contemplative—whatever one’s disagreements with his film, he has pushed it beyond explicitness and sensationalism into a zone of contemplation.”
Kolkata’s advantage is that it isn’t yet facing the pressures of being a centre of global capital, like Mumbai or Delhi. It is in that sweet place between its radical past and possibility-filled present. “This city makes space for us to be here,” Q says. “The film-makers here are not contaminated.” Kolkata lets an actor like Rii coexist with the poppets and retiring beauties of the mainstream film industry—even though, she says, people still don’t know how to slot her. “My life is so abnormal,” she points out. “I live with my boyfriend who is named Q and directs me in films for which he asks me to suck another man’s cock. They are completely head-fucked.”