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Qaushiq Mukherjee (best known as Q) created an eight-film oeuvre—which may be modest—but it has certainly earned him a reputation. He has moved from his psychedelic 2012 re-telling of Tagore’s musical “Tasher Desh,” to the audaciously titled “Gandu” in 2010—so trippy that it was banned from screens in India! You don’t need to have seen his work to surmise that it’s largely fueled by shock value.
So while his latest feature, “Brahman Naman” (a hot favorite at Sundance 2016) has been projected as his tamest and most commercially viable venture to date—if this is your first experience with the curiously monikered filmmaker’s brazen style, consider yourself adequately primed—there is no shortage of “did that just happen?!” moments in “Brahman Naman.” Have no doubt that there will be moments that’ll leave you slack-jawed, but, just as often, cackling in spite of yourself.
The story centers on a trio of textbook nerds, led by 17-year-old Naman (Shashank Arora), an anti-hero of sorts. Naman’s appetite for Latin linguistics and Shakespearean quotes is as raging as his sex drive, although, his cocky demeanor is a poor disguise for his lack of first-hand experience in the latter department. While his randy teenage reflexes stand in sharp contrast to the purity and restraint emphasized by the priestly Brahman caste to which he belongs, that dissonance doesn’t stop him from seeking out creative ways to pleasure himself. Furtive midnight fornication with a fridge is just one way he satisfies his indefatigable libido. Other methods demonstrated through the film include a fan and a fish tank; I’ll leave the specifics to your imagination.
Even as he and his equally lustful and geeky musketeers (Tanmay Dhanania and Chaitanya Varad) climb the brain-busting ranks of Bangalore’s collegiate trivia circuit—a burgeoning extracurricular activity in 1980s India—their mission to gain the All India Quiz Competition title is matched, if not surpassed, by the fantasy of losing their virginities.
Thus, the majority of the film transpires in an inebriated, smoky haze of desire and disappointment as they drunkenly ogle at porn magazines, admire out-of-their-league crushes from afar, and fumble over awkward female encounters in clumsy pursuit of what they perceive to be every boy’s ultimate badge of manhood.
From the obvious expressions of sexual frustration to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments like Naman’s vegetarian dinner, strategically placed to resemble certain female body parts—sexual innuendo doesn’t spare a single frame of the film. It’s hard to dismiss as gratuitous when it’s inherent in the film’s DNA as a “boys will be boys” comedy. How couldn’t a portrayal of the typical teenage male fixation on masturbation jokes poke the parameters of what’s socially acceptable among largely conservative audiences? Why wouldn’t an honest snapshot of the sexually preoccupied male adolescent experience be ripe with double meanings that elicit gasps and giggles in equal measure?
Yet “Brahman Naman” goes beyond simply riding on its subject matter to get away with those instances, or being audacious just for the sake of it. Q’s stylistic choices underscore a deeper deliberation and careful construction of the film’s tone. It’s discernable in his (or cinematographer Siddhartha Nuni’s) employment of an ultra wide-angle lens to achieve a fishbowl effect on the boys’ private interactions, putting us in uncomfortably close proximity to their most intimate moments, as opposed to the normal lens used for their interactions with the outside world. It’s apparent in the soundtrack, a pitch-perfect blend of raunchy 80’s rock numbers like Rod Stewart’s “Infatuation” representing the playboy spirit Naman and his buddies claim to the channel, and rinky-dink, maudlin Bollywood ballads betraying the reality of their hapless tendency to strike out.
Much of the credit also goes to screenwriter Naman Ramachandran, whose autobiographically inspired screenplay (the actual extent of which I’m afraid to find out), has its own filter-free, yet incredibly eloquent, irreverence that lends itself wholly to Q’s cinematic cheek. Naman and his friends’ often-juvenile antics are set to dialogue that rests on the opposite end of the maturity spectrum: genuinely witty, articulate banter rooted in convent-educated English. Their obsession with erotica is matched by as intense a limerence for language—while the former is crass, the latter is polished, and together, they make for an unlikely but intriguing pairing. While it isn’t enough to prevent the crude humor from trickling dangerously into tedious territory towards the end of the film, a more grounded climax (ironic though it may seem) brings the story to a more meaningful place before we grow too weary.
Intended to be a statement on the caste structure that lingers in contemporary Indian society, “Brahman Naman” contains occasional overt references to criticize the archaic ideologies towards class and status—a scene in which the three friends amble through a predominantly Muslim neighborhood to skeptical glares from its residents is particularly telling, or the problematic fact that Rita, the heroine of Naman’s every fantasy, is of a lower caste than him. But more often than not, the appraisal becomes clipped by the screenplay’s preference for fitting in as much slickly-worded, sexually-charged snark as possible, leaving any aims to make a direct, hard hitting judgments only partly fleshed out. Yet, that may work in the film’s favor as a more heavy-handed commentary would likely have weighed down what essentially is more successful as a lighthearted coming of age tale.
A bold offering (especially in India) with uninhibited performances across the board, “Brahman Naman” will be met with amused delight by segments of the audience, while another contingent of viewers may recoil in astonished disgust. Whatever the reaction, there’s no denying that it’s a much-needed jolt to India’s limp and listless sex comedy genre—for that alone, “Brahman Naman” scores big.
“Brahman Naman” made its New York premiere on May 9 at the New York Indian Film Festival. The film’s global premiere will follow on July 7 via Netflix.
Born and raised in Japan to Indian parents, freelance writer Anisha Jhaveri’s globe-spanning background lent itself to her vast exposure and interest in world cinema and culture. A former but fierce New Yorker, she is now based in Singapore, where she is constantly on the lookout for movies and media that resonate on levels unmarked by national or social lines. Find her coverage on platforms such as India.com, Independent Magazine, Indiewire and RogerEbert.com. When she’s not reviewing the newest Bollywood release or scoping out hidden gems at film festivals, she can be found dancing up an (awkward) storm at her local Zumba studio or scouring Pinterest for healthy recipe inspiration.