How filmmaker Qaushik Mukherjee is bypassing real-world censorship

Qaushik Mukherjee
If there’s one way to describe Q’s work, it’d be that his film is not likely to come to a theatre near you. But it may have a way of coming closer, through your phone, tablet or laptop, courtesy online streaming services that are soaking up the controversial products of Q’s fervid imagination. 

The latest of these is Garbage. The film garnered positive reviews from critics, but like many of them said, it’ll perhaps find viewership only among ardent film-festival fans. Now playing on Netflix, Garbage was the only Indian film at the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section earlier this year. It’s the latest offering from a director whose film G***u (2010) features on the list of films banned in India. But nudity, sex scenes and foul language, the reasons behind the censorship, continue to be essential to Q’s work.

Qaushik Mukherjee, as he was christened by his non-conformist parents in Kolkata, first shot to the public eye with the controversy around G***u. Today, he’s a familiar name at film festivals, and audiences who attend his screenings invariably leave either loving or hating Q’s work. The 43-year-old doesn’t do subtle.  

But then, Q has built his reputation based on a set of recognisable staples: full frontal nudity, colourful language and a raw, documentary-style which oscillates between fantasy and realism.

The Goa-based filmmaker says it makes him “feel weird” to see Qaushiq Mukherjee splashed across reviews because “Qaushiq Mukherjee doesn’t exist anymore”. Understanding identity politics, because of which he became Q, is now a life-long project. Why an artiste assumes another identity is a question that’s been around forever, and it’ll continue to be around, he says. “I realised very early that issues of identity were something I had to work at. With Qaushiq Mukherjee came the burden of being a Bengali, of having a family and friends. This was all baggage.” One of the reasons why artistes in India can’t do things outside of the system, feels Q, is because “we have a lot to lose, especially our reputations, because we are a highly moralistic country.”

In 2016, Q broke new ground when his film Brahman Naman became the first Asian original from Netflix. The raunchy sex comedy bypassed censors and became available online. “We actually changed the game with Brahman Naman because it was the first indie film that didn’t go to theatres and still made a profit,” says Dhanania, who was also a part of the film’s cast. 

In 2015 came Ludo, a gore-fest which reportedly had the audience at the 2015 Mumbai Film Festival throwing up. (“I don’t think it was all that gory,” says the director.) Other projects under his production banner Oddjoint include Love in India (2009), Nabarun (a 2014 documentary on the iconoclastic writer Nabarun Bhattacharya) and Tasher Desh (a bold retelling of Rabindranath Tagore’s 1930s musical). 

But none of his previous works has been as serious as Garbage. Nor as politically vocal. “Garbage was really not meant to be this serious,” says the director. The tone changed only after a friend died last year. “She was paranoid about security, especially with the kind of violence that has been going around. She moved into a gated community and four months later she was found raped and murdered in her flat.” 

While painting a portrait of women who find their privacy and security in a shambles in these fractious times, Garbage also addresses the ease with which online trolls deride Gauri Lankesh, the writer-activist who was murdered last year in Bengaluru. Between his blind worship of an abusive baba and his job of ferrying tourists around, Phanishwar also takes the time to comment online on Lankesh’s death. His comment, shocking as it might be, isn’t far removed from the vitriol actually spewed on social media. The film is scary because, as Q says, “it reflects the current state of affairs”. 

Growing up in the 1980s, Q spent his childhood visiting single-screen theatres with his father, Rathindranath Mukherjee. But that isn’t what drew him to filmmaking. After 10 years in advertising, Q once found himself in a video store in Colombo. He picked up a film which featured a woman with red hair on its cover (at that point, Q’s hair was the same colour). The film was German director Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, and it marked the beginning of Q’s interest in the post-’90s new wave of cinema from Europe and Asia. 

“These films (like Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q) made me realise that fun was back in cinema. These filmmakers weren’t taking themselves seriously,” says Q. “Earlier on there was pressure to be a master. But post-90s the era of the masters was gone. After 100 years of cinema, we could play around with form. We were free to do anything.” 

It is this sense of “fun” that Q carries with himself on set. Once, while shooting for Brahman Naman, recalls Dhanania, they shot for 36 hours straight. “He’s a bundle of energy. He does this weird bouncy thing when he’s happy and he just kept going while the rest of us were falling,” he laughs. 

Q’s nom de guerre is also, quite clearly, a tribute to Visitor Q. Considered by many to be among the most disturbing films ever made, Visitor Q is premised on the need for disruption when a society or culture finds itself stagnating — the need for someone from the outside to throw stones at the system. 

This eponymous Visitor Q mirrors Qaushik Mukherjee’s need to become Q. Like the disrupter in that film, Q was an outsider to the world of filmmaking, and he wanted to throw stones at an industry that made films only of a certain kind (the ones that continue to feature scantily dressed dancing women and heroes who save the day).

Q is driven by his socialist view of the world, feels Hina Saiyada, editor and producer with Oddjoint, and also Q’s partner. “Finding justice motivates him. 

The 2016 Netflix original Brahman Naman; a still from Zero Kms on ZEE5
He wants to take on social issues through engaging and entertaining stylish mediums while continuing to work in an independent ecosystem.” 

While working on their latest project, a web series called Zero Kms (for an online platform called ZEE5) starring Naseeruddin Shah, Q spent a lot of time ensuring the fight scenes in the action-packed drama were realistic. Perhaps it is this need to update his own aesthetic that keeps Q from being repetitive.   

“He’s probably one of the most famous filmmakers whose films haven’t come out in theatres,” says Dhanania. “A box-office release would actually be a huge impediment to his work.”

With three of his movies being picked up by Netflix, and Zero Kms now on Zee5, it looks like Q has found his space — free of censor boards. “But the digital space is still coming up and we don’t know where it’ll lead,” cautions Q. “Like any good real estate, the online space is also being quickly taken up by the bigger guys.” Till such dire time, though, Q has finally found a way to reach an audience beyond film festivals.