“I am an activist, not a filmmaker”, says Qaushiq Mukherjee, better known as Q. That’s as it may be, but he’s still savouring the warm reception his latest film Garbage has received at its world premiere at the Berlinale. The morning after, his eyes hidden behind his distinctive thick-framed glasses, he tells me how hard it is to make his kind of cinema — hard-hitting, disruptive and chaotic — and yet how that’s the only kind of cinema he is interested in making.
Garbage, the only official Indian entry at the Berlin festival (it’s playing at the Panorama section) is sometimes too in-your-face, the way it takes two young women and a man, flings them into terrible situations, and observes them, pitilessly, trying to negotiate those tough tangles. One of the young women has inadvertently become the object of wet dreams on the internet (a lovemaking video of hers has been leaked online); another lives chained up in a house; and the man, who connects both of them, uses repression and oppression to keep himself and them, in line.
It also becomes a bit much in the way the sex — brutal and relentless — is a constant presence, and the violence is bloody and visceral. But there is not doubt that a Q needs to exist, because someone needs to be making the kind of cinema he does. It is ugly yet necessary, because without it, there would be no mirror. To show human depravity is extremely tricky, because your film can end up feeling depraved. To see a young woman in thick chains, only wearing a thin shift, body parts askew, becomes deeply uncomfortable. So is the character who imprisons her having it off while she is lying there. Is the filmmaker revealing a little too much in her helplessness?
But Q’s film is rescued, and some of the gender politics which is threatening to come off skewed, by the way he takes on the religious establishment. A saffron-clad charlatan forces a male bhakt to perform oral sex, showing himself up for what he is — a predator. It also helps that the women, finally, break free. The girl in chains is unshackled; the other one looks as if she will move past her trauma. You feel vindicated, because there is a part of us which always wants the victims to win.
All his films (beginning with Gandu, about a young rapper and his drug-and-sex-fuelled journey, which opened at the Berlinale in 2010) are out there, in their boundary-pushing, subverting traditional tropes. The director is unafraid to present nakedness, done matter-of-factly. After a point, you stop looking at them as people without clothes and you begin looking at their selves. Isn’t he afraid that he will get stuck with subjects that topline subversion? Does it become a burden that needs to be carried? “But this is all I want to do through my films,” he says. “And some of us filmmakers (there’s a mini-van lit with a menacing red glow in Garbage too, like in Sanal Sashidharan’s S Durga; he put that image into his film without having seen Sanal’s film) are now sharing that intent. Isn’t that wonderful?” Finally, everything is garbage. You may or may not agree fully with Q’s vision. But there isn’t any doubt that we need both provocation, and transgression in our art. That’s the only way to shake things up.