The ebb and flow of his own personal filmmaking journey was not far from Q’s mind as he arrived at the 68th Berlinale for the World Premiere of his tenth feature Garbage (2018). Nor was the aggressive nature of his raw thriller, a nightmarish vision infused with the themes of patriarchy, religion and cyber-bullying set in contemporary India.
Phanishwar (Tanmay Dhanania) is a taxi driver in Goa, an internet troll who spends his time slut shaming women online whilst at home lies his hidden secret – Nanaam (Satarupa Das), the woman he keeps prisoner in chains. When Rami (Trimala Adhikari), a medical student and a victim of revenge porn leaked online by an ex-boyfriend seeks refuge in Goa, their two paths cross.
Garbage represents a return to Berlinale for Q, following in the footsteps of his 2010 film Gandu, which also premiered in the Panorama section. The deliberate slow-burn pace creates a visceral claustrophobic feeling, the dystopian vision cultivated onscreen is unapologetic that it will inevitably divide audiences – perhaps drawing accusations of misogynistic filmmaking, with a lack of taste and propriety. Garbage however calls on the boldness of its author to commit to what feels like a film made with the intent of a response, amidst surveying his reality.
In conversation with Film Frame, Q reflected on the counterbalance of the aesthetic and narrative to create a balance of consistency and inconsistency within his body of work. He also discussed his reality and surroundings as a collaborator, the significance of the unseen details, and the necessity for cinema to act as a transformative experience.
Film Frame: In The Hero (2017), Sam Elliott describes a film as another persons dream. However, watching Garbage leads me to question whether this is a romantic idea of the cinema?
Q: The romantic notion of cinema is quite a classic viewpoint and the kind of films that I have been into post 2000, when I first became interested in film, have always been those that portray a physical, uncomfortable and cynical reality. So I would go along with that dream logic because it’s like going into the mind of someone, but more the hallucinatory dream/nightmare inducing physical embodiment of a narrative that cinema is for me right now. A good example of this is a striking film by Hitoshi Matsumoto called R100 (2013). I find your reference goes very strongly with the kind of narrative Matsumoto is trying to put forward, which I am extremely inspired by and which clinically informed Garbage.
Film Frame: The feel of Garbage, its energy is radically different to your previous film Brahman Naman (2016). How do you view the relationship Garbage shares with your body of work, and the way in which you have pursued an exploration of your creative range through the cinematic language?
Q: I started out my fiction life with this freewheeling, unstinting, physical sort of embodiment of what the narrative was. For instance in Gandu, I tried for the first time to take a real space with real stuff around it, and introduce my actors into that setting as their characters, but not allowing them out of character. Without having any moral judgement, I would look at it as a documentary filmmaker and record what was going on, instead of setting them up with activities and thoughts. I have always liked to work that way and in the middle of my career as you correctly said, it has been my agenda to keep flipping. Obviously there is a stylistic continuum throughout all of my work, but I have tried to make each one as different as possible from the last, moving genre, jumping narrative styles and the act structures.
After making ten films, Garbage brings me back again to that street style I call pedestrian filmmaking, where you are on the street without anything, and you are basically recording whatever goes on in the reality around you. This is a hyper reality that is curated by the artist, but I am dreaming from the actual immediate reality as well. So it’s a two way street where space and people are constantly throwing things back at me, which I then have to take and move forward.
Film Frame: The film uses space as a metaphor to express ideas, amidst narrative devices that connect the two characters not only to one another, but to their society. In moments the film takes the form of a tapestry of images that offsets the emphasis on dialogue.
Q: Yes and no. Most of it was very organic, at least in this case because I tried to enter the space the characters inhabited without any judgement. I knew that was going to be tough, especially working in a setting like Phanishwar’s, and it was not because I would judge Rami by putting mistakes in her general lack of apathy for the world, her self-centredness. So I tried to keep these away and let the actors breathe, to feel and do whatever they wanted to do in these situations. In the workshops they were coming up with scenes they could do without words, activities that were utterly normal and extremely innocuous, and yet these small little details still carried the essence of what the characters were going through.
What I would really like to say is the great difference in the way the dance happened was my partnership with Hina [Saiayda], the editor and production designer. She brought in this cadence, this ribbon I wouldn’t have had, and in musical terms I am sort of a break beat kind of guy, and Hina brought a very interesting progressive jazz movement. There was a bass line, a crooked drum that was very mental, however it all fell into place because of the way she looked at the design of the film, and the way she edited it, finding meanings inside the activities and the details. I don’t think I would have been able to look at it in this way, and the film wouldn’t have been what it is without what she brought to the table.
Film Frame: Cinema is fundamentally a collaborative art form, no matter the scale of the production. Each person involved in the process is an author in their own right, and amidst this is the organic part of storytelling. Is this an aspect for which your appreciation deepens with each film?
Q: A film like this is where the collaboration really starts to work because it is a small group, and everyone implicitly trusts one another. I have seen with bigger crews that this collaboration doesn’t really manifest itself so well, but in a film like Garbage, it is a complete collaboration. Tanmay and I had been talking about this character for over a year and he brought a lot of information into our lives. So with my team having worked together for a long time, during the production there was a certain sense of a calm, relaxed and challenging environment. People were constantly challenging each other and coming up with something that another person wouldn’t, which motivates and furthers the interests of the film. Clearly in this one that was in abundance because I was getting these vibes from even the smaller characters, the non-actors who came onto the set with their own sense of design and aesthetic. Nikhil Chopra, who is a very interesting performance artist and a friend of ours, played the small but extremely relevant character of the Kisan Dulhari, who has come from America. He only has two scenes and I didn’t have to say or do anything. I just gave him the context and he came in and contributed heavily to the aesthetic of the film, which is the real kind of collaboration.
Film Frame: Unlike the filmmakers, the audience are not necessarily aware of those little moments, gestures and occurrences that impact the aesthetic and narrative of the film.
Q: The audience will mostly watch it once and so it is not necessary for them to pick up on those minor details in the time they spend with the film. But their feelings are augmented and controlled by those small details, even if they don’t know that. The subversion of the filmmaking narrative is those invisible things that motivate and emotionally manipulate you, but which you can’t really see. We as filmmakers are acutely aware of those small details that make up the general idea of the narrative, and plant them in precise spots to give you as I like to say: “The boil in the ass.” These are moments that are uncomfortable and you have to understand that you are going to experience something that is going to be painful for a while, which you can’t really do anything about it. I think it’s a very important thing that filmmakers are acutely aware of that and in a way delight in it, and I hope we’ve been able to do that in Garbage.
Film Frame: Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he 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, and does the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience through reflection? Is this a means to measure the merit of a film?
Q: Yeah, I do believe that we are working in that realm of film not being just a popular culture phenomenon, but that we are actually trying to put forward some thoughts and ideas, to question notions of morality of the social political stance the audience may have. But having said that, most of the time my films aren’t seen by the people around me here in India. It takes them some time to watch it and meanwhile a lot of things will happen. For instance, in the time that it takes for an Indian audience to be able to watch this film, it has been written about by other people who are not in this same reality, and so it is a conundrum. At the same time it has been ten years since I began doing this type of work and I am okay with it because I know there is no way around this issue. I have to craft it in a manner that the essence of the film is kept alive even after a year of the film having premiered. There has to be a solid resonance that is a type of transformative factor because this is crucial to any kind of political statement.
It does change me both as a person and as a filmmaker, and by having now said these things, I would really imagine the best possible scenario for the film is when the audience are transformed less mentally and more physically. It is not like a feeling, but a real pain, like a scratch or a cut that you have to live with for the next few days. So as you can see, it has a violent tendency already and it’s not like a kiss, it is a cut that will stay and bother you for a longer time after. I really do think that with Garbage we were trying to get there, and it remains to be seen, but I hope it will live and be effected in that way.
Photo credit: Sumit Kumar Biswas
Film still provided courtesy of Organic Marketing