The geeks who knew too much5 min read . Updated: 10 Jul 2016, 02:08 AM IST
'Brahman Naman' is a throwback to the quizzing scene in 1980s' Bangalore, where awkward youths adopted personas of worldly wise smart alecks
Indian cinema has rarely done subcultures well. Why restrict yourself, after all, when you can reach hundreds of millions of people by expounding upon a universal theme like forbidden love, or thwarted love, or love lost and regained? The last film I remember to have undertaken a stout-hearted dive into a subculture was the Tamil Aadukalam, from 2011, set in the netherworld of rooster fights. Even Aadukalam, though, squeezed its narrative allure out of the shadiness ingrained into the illicit rooster-fighting circuit and the violence it produced. The foremost achievement of Brahman Naman, the new film by Q, is its pin-sharp portrayal of quizzing: a subculture uniquely Indian, entirely licit, filled with people who share a complicated relationship with knowledge, and with the world at large.
The landscape of Brahman Naman is collegiate quizzing in Bangalore in the 1980s, and even to those of us who began attending the Karnataka Quiz Association’s (KQA) meets a decade or so later, the film rings instantly true. This is for good reason. The writer of Brahman Naman, Naman Ramachandran—who pops up in a delicious cameo, as a scalper of tickets in a blue-film theatre—quizzed in that bygone Bangalore, and his script is heavily populated with his memories.
There is no quizzer around, for instance, who will watch a character named Henry amble over to our three heroes—one of them with a foot in plaster—with a taunting “Waste fuckers. What ra, cripple? Bull broke your leg-aa?" and not think in a flash of Arul Mani, the genial, consensual-thigh-grabbing, slowly grizzling eminence of the KQA. The Calcutta quizmaster Brian D’Costa, with his clipped tones and his mild showboating, is modelled on Derek O’Brien. Other references are deeper. Slipped into a train-bogie conversation about the Greek philosopher Celsus is a tribute to a question once set by wing commander G.R. Mulky, the KQA’s founder, who died 10 years ago.
But these details are, in a way, trivia, appealing—as trivia usually does—only to quizzers. What Ramachandran nails are the quizzers themselves: their psyches, particularly in the ripe swell of youth, and the social habitats from which they emerge.
It would cede too much to the stereotype to say that all quizzers are social misfits, geeks cast out from the rest of humanity and finding solace in each other’s company. Ramachandran’s three protagonists are awkward only as most males in high school and college are awkward: they form cliques, think obsessively about the opposite sex, and mask insecurity with bluster. Brahman Naman features one all-woman quiz team, which is refreshing but also a piece of misbegotten fiction; sadly, quizzing was, and continues to be, a sport brimming with men. Invariably, these were men who were once students of promise in school and college, but who also found themselves at right angles with their peers—for reading outside of prescribed textbooks, for thrilling to new knowledge, for being fond of learning at all in an environment that stuffed learning down everyone’s throats. These qualities are never perceived as being the staples of masculinity, and Brahman Naman’s quizzers reach for the only solution. They choose to revel in their particular alienation, adopting personas of worldly wise smart alecks that enable them to feel superior to everyone else.
For this reason, the movie’s quizzers speak to each other in ways that frustrate outsiders, in a language that is filled with oblique references, past jokes and personal history, and that is coded in elaborate circumlocution. They frequently sound rude and pompous. (“I just came to wish you good luck, and goodbye," a female admirer of Naman, the titular hero, says before he sets off for a quiz tournament. “Well, you have," he says. “Therefore, Dasvidanya, Arrivederci.") But Ramachandran also captures the delight that quizzers, geeks and nerds find in knowledge itself—in knowing, for example, the Russian and Italian words for “goodbye". As Naman is uncapping a flask of liquor, his new friend Naina asks him: “None for me? A beaker full of the warm South?" Naman’s face lights up, and he completes the thought from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “The blushful Hippocrene?" The unalloyed happiness upon Naman’s face speaks of having found a kindred spirit, a fellow traveller in the realm of useless knowledge.
There is even a brand of humour here, shared by the Brahman Naman’s quizzers and those of the real world, a belief that knowledge ought to be deployed perpetually in the service of wit or irony. When Henry first makes his appearance, our quizzers spontaneously deliver a snatch of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I am," that ancient favourite of British music halls. There’s no joke here, really, in the fact that the song is sung to an approaching Henry; the comedic glee lies purely in the joy of knowing the song and being able to sing it at whim.
Threaded through Brahman Naman, though, is also a lurking awareness about the ultimate futility of knowledge. This doesn’t just manifest itself in the questions posed to our quizzers by their parents, the sort we’ve all heard at some point or another. “What will happen after college?" Naman’s father demands. “Will your quizzing feed you for the rest of your life?" That is a logistical concern, but there’s something darker and more existential at stake. More knowledge does not translate into a better world—a realization that has descended not only upon quizzers but upon anyone contemplating the dismal state of the planet today.
At one stage, Naman and his teammate Ajay venture into a brothel, only to be daunted by the prospect of what might ensue; they pelt out of there and wind up in an unfamiliar part of town. Naman, pulling himself together, remarks that this area was gerrymandered, its boundaries redrawn to suit a party’s electoral advantage, and he explains how the term was born from the name of Elbridge Gerry, a 19th century governor of Massachusetts. This lesson in etymology is delivered in such a surreal situation that it is almost comical, until Ajay points out that they’re discussing political trivia when they might have been engaged in deflowering themselves. Naman looks around him with sadness. “That’s all we have, Ajay. Trivia." It is a cri de coeur straight out of Absurdism, a recognition that our existence is a mere trifle, devoid of meaning. It is also the despair of a quizzer who, knowing so much about the world, finds himself stymied by life.
Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent of The National and co-founder of the quiz team QED.