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“The underground has real power.”

Sreemanti Sengupta in conversation with Q

Q, is an Indian film director known for his controversial cult film Gandu. Mukherjee grew up in Kolkata and worked in advertising for many years in IndiaMaldives , and Sri Lanka. He is the founder and CEO of the indie film production company, Oddjoint Art Pvt. Ltd. His rapper persona Doktor Gandu has released several hit tracks as part of two albums.

How can you describe the present artistic climate of India?

It is becoming very difficult to work as an artist or intellectual who dabbles in underrepresented or marginalized subjects. Since the lockdown, they have changed the IT laws and all networks have imposed self-censorship giving extreme power to the producers. 3-4 projects of mine completed in 2019 have not been released due to this. Things are simply not moving!

How do you plan to negotiate these times and continue to do good work?

I am not sure - let's see! Our whole journey since 2016 has been about negotiating. We have been anti-everything. People like us who question the orthodoxy or establishment have always worked in difficult times.

Do you think power has its own code that just gets transferred?

Yes, power just changes faces and we get used to them. Just imagine - we are getting used to the compromised freedom of the internet!

Film Posters (L to R): Gandu, Tasher Desh, and Love in India (documentary)

What made you so interested in the digital medium?

When I was 17, my uncle gave me an internship at his advertising agency. I have witnessed the transformation of design and advertising from analog to digital media. I have dabbled in all types of printing - from bromides, to silkscreen to woodblock. And I was also there when the first Apple computer came to Kolkata. Hence, I am always excited about the power of technology and automation since possibilities always seem to expand with changes! 

Before we give up and say, Internet is fucked, we must ask ourselves – who is running the internet?

All I see are the search engines…

Very good point. The original idea of the internet was, that it should be the Information Super Highway. And the idea was that everything in the world should be digitized and made public. And search engines were like catalog cards in a huge library – it optimizes our search. So instead of being afraid of AI, we should be fearing search engines! We are sharing everything with a search engine – asking it questions we don’t even ask our friends. We are willingly compromising ourselves, being slaves willingly. AI is working on information too. So one can easily write an essay comparing Francis Bacon and a 17th-century Persian poet. We are scared because we don’t know these things. So the question is – do we know anything that the internet doesn’t know – is that what constitutes humanity?

(L to R): Q With the Odditor at his Kolkata residence, with A Song For Syria by Odd Books, perusing the Odd Books

What is the artist’s role in this world?

I have been brought up on a lie, that artists will change the world. I fully believed and practiced it. But then I thought – When was the last time that an artist changed somebody’s life? In our time it was Orkut and Reddit, then it was Zomato – that’s what is changing lives! The art community never considered coding as art – but it is creating new languages – the highest form of art! The games that we played in the 80’s and 90’s are were so good, that they are still being played today – like true classics.  So from 2005-06, I started hanging out with the coding community more and more. From that time, I have been going on saying that in the future, distribution will only be on the internet – everything else will stop. I also did a series of talks during that time, including one on TEDx that talked about cinematized entertainment. I predicted cinema would be dead and it is so just 6 years hence (hell, I am making films!) Netflix invaded India and cinema rotted away.

Why is your name Q?

Q is a character from Takashi Miike’s film ‘Visitor Q’.

Who is your favourite author?

Currently it is K R Meera. I enjoyed her book Quabar. And also Osamu Tezuka who is a comic book artist.

How did you get into filmmaking? Did your childhood contribute to it?

Well, yes and no. My father was a staunch communist and I grew up in a household that worked on socialist principles. I came to know about Mickey Mouse at age 11 or 12 (Laughs) So, the hatred for capitalism was drilled deep into me from an early age. I suppose I rebelled against it at a point and joined the advertising industry where I worked for ten years. In hindsight, however, I think it was about understanding the enemy.

I had the staple adolescence of Bengali rebellious kids. I had red hair, was always fond of electronic music, and used to be one of Sumon’s (now Kabir Suman)’s sidekicks – but then I moved on. I do not have sympathy or romanticism for old things.  I moved to this advertising job and grew to be a creative director at a time when you still could be an advertising CD at 25. I was fully into advertising and the whole lifestyle that comes with it.

So I discovered this video store in Srilanka, in a low-ceilinged basement which was near my 6 pm South Indian snack joint. I had no interest in cinema and just chanced upon the VHS cover of Run Lola Run. The VHS cover immediately drove the designer in me. The fact that this was an art/alternative film that used modern design completely captivated me. I watched it thrice back to back that very night and immediately decided to become a filmmaker.

Curious drawing on Q's wall

Describe your image

Logo sticker of oddjoint the indie film production house founded by Q

Describe your image

(L to R): Interesting art on Q's wall, Wall sticker of Odd Joint logo - the indie production house founded by Q

How do you rate yourself as an artist?

I think my artistic standards are somewhere between Bhanu Banerjee and Swapan Saha. Does anybody know about Bhanu’s films? They are amazing, his cinematic composition is like Buster Keaton. Now, Swapan Saha was a refugee’s son – he came to Kolkata and “I am going to make a film in 5 lakhs,” and he did! We said the same thing – we have the camera video set up and a crew – who will stop us and how? For the next 10 years, Saha also began to sell his films directly to the exhibitors. So we have a strategic similarity – when you are working against the establishment, you must pay attention to every nitty-gritty – work the whole thing out.

Isn’t your story similar to Satyajit Ray – he also worked in advertising and was abroad when he came across a film that made him decide to be a filmmaker…?

I don’t think so. My decision to make films was a political one. I came back to political activism through films. At first, I made documentary films. But saw that nobody was seeing them and hearing what I had to say. So I shot Gandu in documentary style and just injected two actors into it. My films are led by ideas that are not for sale. So the documentary style is more suited to it because nobody expects much from it. But we are in a country where this platform does not work (except for true crimes). Since we don’t produce commercial content, don’t take any commissions, etc., we are constantly developing new ways and formats to tell our stories. And cinema is only one of our mediums. Opposing the establishment is at the very core of our efforts. So Ray has done great films, but it’s just not in my zone.

If art is completely democratized, does it not become another establishment?

No. The system here is decentralization, this is not a pyramid structure, but rather a concentric circles structure which has the core members and goals at the center. Today, the distance between the maker and the audience is being rapidly reduced due to social media analytics. Now a magician knows who is seeing her/him and I also know my audience. But I don’t believe in that statistic. Because if I am measuring my audience thusly, somebody else is measuring me.

What is the real underground?

I have great respect for and have done considerable research on the underground community.

My first underground experiment failed. The second was released in theatres in 2009, called Bish (The Poison) which was highly successful and I knew I didn’t want to make films like that anymore. The next documentary-style film was Love In India, which too was very successful. But I was told that nobody was watching it and was not interested. And if nobody was watching it, the work was not being done. It’s no use wondering about the underground movement in Israel, or the success of commercial movies where there is clear support. But what happens to this space? The times have changed – underground work is no longer being supported by patrons. Whether it is the Bauls, Kabiyals, or the Fakirs – they have all had to turn to making industrial content. My challenge was making a film which cannot be tracked back to its maker – that was Gandu.

An artist who wants to tell a story needs to form a picture in the audience’s mind. This guy (Q/director in question) cannot do it. This guy is an upper caste Savarna Hindu, this guy comes from a position of privilege, this guy has met people who think they know him, and now I understood that I need to create a character that these guys will not know and will feel unsettled by!

So you have achieved your desired dissociation, has your audience done so?

Yes! People have endless questions about ‘Q’, where he comes from, etc. But if I find anybody connecting Qaushik Mukherjee to Q, I know immediately that she/he hasn’t understood anything.

Is this somewhat like Kafka’s ‘Castle’?

No no –it’s not difficult at all. Forget Castle…that time is gone – I would say Snoop Dogg, or Ice Cube. These are not their real names. They have chosen them carefully since the name has a clear link to their artistic goal.

See, I don’t wish the entire world is decentralized. We are just asking why isn’t there an alternative? If you like free-market, that’s fine – why drag us along with it? You are calling this clannish behaviour – I am saying it is protectionist behaviour! We are rejecting the patriarchal democracy and working towards a protopia. You are the establishment that is continuously taking away from us marginals – why shouldn’t we throw stones at your car? We don’t want to be like your film directors. This is the fight in our country right now!

(L to R): Poster of 'Nabarun' (documentary - ODDJOINT Production), Poster of Garbage (digital release), Q posing in front of his film poster of Brahman Naman (Netflix release)

What is your most favourite award?

It must be 'Bish' at OSIANS in 2008.

But awards itself are not important to us. However, they serve a strategic purpose. Since we are in the world cinema stage, our aim is to get acceptance from the international marketplace and at festivals. This will mean we have fulfilled the goals set by our core support system. That was how it was going until now. Today, with the (OTT) networks becoming so powerful, the balance has shifted a bit.

Do you admire your underground legacy or do you consider them dated too? What about Rabindranath Tagore?

Rabindranath has no relevance for me. I am not a classical or romantic person.

A real underground trailblazer was Kaliprasanna Singha. Fantastic chap – he died at 27 too (like the famous 27 club members).

I have no belief in democracy – the underground has true power! For example, just beyond this building is a slum, on whose circumstances I have no control! But there are organizations of resistance everywhere – there may be some among your friends. And they are so powerful that they are resisting the government! There was a big plan to lay railways through the forest, they stopped it. And the Supreme Court lawyer that was responsible for the verdict is my landlord.

How far along the way are you on your targets?

From the end of 2000 till 2014-15 - alternative Indian filmmakers were all very excited. The underground movement was thriving in India. Then suddenly there was a huge crash and people did all kinds of weird things out of desperation – the times also changed through this crisis.  But now, things are looking up again. Anurag Kashyap’s film ‘Kennedy’ is having a midnight screening in Cannes 2023 – which is very fucking amazing…and also a film by Kanu Behl which is in Cannes this year. So I predict some very good well-made Indian films will be released this year. After that, I don’t know. But I can see that the time to speak up has arrived and it will be difficult to mute the voices that will speak out.

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