After shocking the audience with his last release provocatively titled Gandu, director Quashiq Mukherjee aka ‘Q’ speaks to Sagorika Dasgupta about his tryst with the on-screen adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Tasher Desh
Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
You are talking to Q, who didn’t have a childhood. He was born an adult as a maverick, radical artiste, not even a filmmaker. This is a person that was created. On the other hand, there was this other guy and the moment he stepped in, the world of fantasy began to unravel. So the last eight years of my life have been very different from the rest of my life. The only bridge was the trip that I was on. But I decided to go completely into that trip. So the remnants of my past life are slowly filtering out of my system and my upcoming film Tasher Desh is an example of that.
How is this film different from your earlier works?
This film is diametrically opposite to Gandu. I was very nervous of how the Western critics would receive the film. Once you get criticised in a nice manner, you develop relationships and then it is a question of delivering. I was sure they wouldn’t like Tasher Desh because it’s a broken narrative. It was completely out of their comfort zone, which Ganduwasn’t. They have watched films like this before, but it was a completely different trip for Indians. Tasher Desh is purely a tripper’s film, not for everyone to trip on. It’s a very physical film; you may feel sick in the middle of it. But it’s purely technique that does this.
Gandu was a very controversial film. But Tagore is sacrosanct. Did you have any apprehensions that your past work might colour the audience reaction?
The fact that I am doing Tagore might be controversial but other than that, there are no points of controversy because, very clearly, we are looking at a text that is experimental, which already had these aberrations that I could play upon. And so whenever there is any argument about how the film has been treated, we have mechanisms within Tagore’s script to answer those questions. That’s the beauty of this film. The Censors have given it a U/A certificate and not made a single cut, and I think they were very pleased to watch it. I left the room before they changed their mind!
But Gandu didn’t get a theatrical release. Wasn’t that a downer?
No not at all. I had never intended for my film to be screened theatrically. I was always more of a guerilla filmmaker, say on the lines of filmmakers like Gary Clarkson, who delivered three huge hits in the ’90s in America. But that wasn’t the great thing; it was very personal for him. He quickly distanced himself from the studio system. Harmony Korine was also in that mode. Their films didn’t reach cinemas and they did not bother. Like documentary filmmakers. They accepted it. I am a documentary filmmaker first.
I don’t want to fit into the social filmmaker mode because I like to use popular culture. I like to use it in another way, not the way Bollywood uses it. But every film of mine will have a hook that the art filmmaker will disagree with. For them, the hook is for the masses. But every flamboyant artist has had a hook, whether they like it or not. And that hook becomes their value. I would like to keep changing that hook every now and then.
What is the hook for Tasher Desh?
The hook for Tasher Desh is Tagore. And why would I make a Tagore film? One reason is the baggage of my childhood that Tagore also has. But that is my personal demon. Personal demons can be shrugged off with low-budget films. (Laughs)
This is one of your biggest productions to date?
Is that the reason you wanted it to reach a larger audience?
No. The moment I touch anything by Tagore, I become mainstream, whether I like it or not. You can relate to it. He has the ultimate connect. My take for this film is how I am looking at it from the other side and my own interpretation of it. But we are not black-and-white people. We are entirely grey and we celebrate that greyness in the subconscious. I think a part of me is like that. Part of me wants to be that cheap activist and part of me wants to be that rock-star on stage.
The film travelled to the Rome Film Festival. How was it received there?
I was very happy with the response there. It was screened in a section called Cinema 21 and that was brilliant since I was in competition with people who I have looked up to all my life. My life was made that day. More importantly, I was happy knowing that critics were watching those films, which were not really cinema but playing with form. They were not looking for narrative, so I was overwhelmed. 90 per cent of them liked my film and equated it with an art installation project with lines and music. The narrative was always a problem so I was criticised there. But everybody who loved it also hated the fact the narrative was not joined.
Is that the hook of the film?
Yes, maybe that’s the hook.
Since Tasher Desh will enjoy a theatrical release in India, how do you think the Indian audience will receive it?
There are two kinds of audiences in India. The ones who are Bengali will watch the film in a completely different light and will have a different perception of the film. There is already some kind of established relationship with that audience. The other kind is the audience that doesn’t have any reference to Tagore. So for me, the challenge was that the same film should be looked at from two different perspectives. That’s why I had to stick to the script. And that was my anchor. So the Bengalis would see how I have dealt with it, because there are performances of this play in Bengal almost every day. And here the audiences will be on a different trip because they haven’t seen anything like this before, especially on screen. It’s a technical film. But you don’t have to be a technician to enjoy it. The technique works physically.
The film also has a very unique distribution strategy during its release.
Yes. On August 23, the film releases theatrically in Bengal and a limited theatrical release in Mumbai. Apart from that, there is a distinctive distribution idea that NFDC is facilitating. The film will have a simultaneous release across all platforms. They are talking to regional distributors to organise the booking but the entire distribution structure is fairly independent. The idea is to have a simultaneous cross-platform release, which means that the DVDs will come out along with the music of the film. So if you buy the DVD, you will get the music of the film too. All this will be released on the day of the release along with the release on the VOD platform along with the satellite release for the Bengali audience.
Does this kind of strategy help indie filmmakers?
It is a completely new concept in India but we don’t know the efficacy of it yet. But it has been tested in America. Since the ’80s, if a film was like this, it would be released in New York or LA depending on the kind of people it appealed to along with a simultaneous DVD release. This strategy was earlier frowned upon by studios in Hollywood. But that’s how indie films were made and funded for a long time. And since the physical sale of DVDs is now waning, a collector’s item of films like these makes sense.
Gandu was a film you could watch on a pen drive or on a mobile in the loo. That was the intent of the film. Low-fi technique going downstream but Tasher Desh is low-fi technique going upwards. The same camera will now give you a super-resolution film mix and the sound will also give you that kick. So the viewing of the film is restricted to a particular conditioned area. People will possibly want to own a high-res copy of the film too. And the music is humongous.
Your first film Le Pocha has a very interesting title.
I had no clue to making movies in those days. As a result of my previous tryst with filmmaking, I went bankrupt. I had Rs 22,000 in my account. With that money, I made another film called Le Pocha. I showed it to people in the rough cut, which again was something people didn’t do at the time. The intellectuals of Kolkata immediately buried me. I thought about improvising. So I thought about the things that people liked. At that time, people in Bengal liked things like black-and-white films, French films, music and superstars. So I concocted things like casting my superstar friends in a black-and-white film, about alternative Bengali musicians and gave a title which sounded French. And I had a film!
It was one of the first independent screenings that I had in a coffee shop in Kolkata and when we projected the film on the shop’s glass entrance, there was a riot outside. There were people watching the film from the outside and we had to set up speakers for them. The audience, including some cops, loved the film and started clapping. It was a crowd pleaser very much like my film Gandu.
But is that the objective of art-house cinema?
The aim of cinema with an art house descent isn’t to please. So every now and then, we have a situation where the antagonistic sort of attitude masquerades as an artist, so one thinks, ‘OK, now let me please people.’ And please in a way that will not let you know that I am also getting a kick out of it. You will want to hate me yet you can’t. So I was into this kind of a post-’90s attitude, not just through my films but also my music.
Gandu got a mixed response from the audience. Were you pleased with the film?
I am nobody from Lake Garden in Kolkata, and yet, I am sitting here in Mumbai and being interviewed. It’s a big deal for me. Even if people hated Gandu, they wouldn’t classify it as a ‘Bengali film’; they would simply call it a film. And that hit me hard. To simply be accepted as a filmmaker whose film has gone beyond the boundaries of language, the regional tag and beyond budgets. This mass acceptance is what we have been fighting for for the last 10 years. Earlier, we didn’t even exist and now we do. And that, I think, is a great thing.