Q & Ray

The renegade filmmaker on his controversial views on Satyajit Ray, and playing him in a Soumitra Chatterjee biopic
Q & Ray

It's scary to talk to Q — you don't know when you might rub him the wrong way. Besides, is there anything he likes — apart from Takashi Miike, that is? Or is there anyone who likes his films? Even though 'like' is hardly a word you use when you talk about Q, whose works are designed to make you uncomfortable. I remember writing about Gandu in my journalism school. The topic of the assignment was to write about a film that you admired, but for all its merits wouldn't watch it again, and Q's breakout sensation, a bootlegged copy of which we had no problems getting our hands on, seemed to fit right in. 9 years down the line, I feel like watching it again, to see if its power to offend still holds. 

This power to offend extends beyond Q's cinema, to his views, one of which is his utter dislike for Satyajit Ray, that beloved of our icons. Now in a twist stranger than meta-fiction, Q is playing Ray. In the teaser of Abhijaan, a film about the life and work of Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray's favourite leading man, we first see Chatterjee recite lines from a Robert Browning poem, followed by a scene where we see Q as Ray, letting his future Apu know that he is too tall to be in Aparajito. He is wearing white pajama-panjabi — something Ray would often wear, and Q never — holding a cigarette and striking that pose as a framed photograph of Tagore hangs in the background. Has there been a more seamless merging of icon and iconoclast? 

When I text Q, he immediately agrees for the interview. He lives in Goa, where he's as much part of the alternative scene as the citizen's andolan that's driving a campaign to save the Mollem forests from Government approved coal mining projects. (When he tells you he can't speak at 7 pm because he'll "be at a loud place at that time", you wonder where that could be: some underground rave?). He mentions a "strange" project around the forest he is working on with Roddur Roy, whose vulgar parodies of Tagore songs resulted in police cases filed against him in Kolkata — perhaps not so strange, given Q's reputation. Here's the filmmaker, as no holds barred as ever:

Your dislike for Ray is wellknown. What's really interesting is that now you are playing Ray, in what must be the first time anybody is playing him on screen.

Well, the first person who told me about the resemblance was Rituparno Ghosh. And it was a very lively chat that we'd had after that, regarding where we stand. I have a very specific stand. By that time it was pretty well known. So he knew about that and we had a chat about the resemblance and the general perceptions about image, since we were both image makers. He was also very interested in alternative image making, because, obviously, he is a precursor of all this. 

So while for instance I never liked Rituparno Ghosh's films, I am sure he didn't like mine. He was very clear at the beginning of the meeting that we are not going to talk about that. And then we proceeded to having a very nice chat.

I would've liked to be a fly on the wall during that chat. 

It was a really insane chat because we were talking about Teddy awards and hanging out in gay bars in Munich and stuff like that. It was a really cool chat. If you take that bangali bhadralok situation out of the whole context, then one can have a progressive conversation. Now my problem is mainly the bangali bhadralok stance that we take on. I have otherwise no issues. For instance like everyone else, I grew up with Satyajit Ray and one of the key things I like about him is his calligraphy. I mean, as a designer I feel he did a lot of work that is far beyond his cinema. That's my perspective. 

Like everyone else, I grew up with Satyajit Ray and one of the key things I like about him is his calligraphy. I mean, as a designer I feel he did a lot of work that is far beyond his cinema. That's my perspective.

My dislike or my problem is with his films. And he would have the same for mine. Because we are coming from totally different spaces in terms of filmmaking, or making visual narrative. And I am post '95. I don't care about it and no matter how many times I say this out aloud, I don't think the Bengali gentry has the wherewithal to fucking get it.

There was an occasion 4-5 years back when someone else had asked me to play Ray in a movie. That movie never got made. But I was in character for a month. And I took that quite seriously. These kind of opportunities are very interesting because you're thinking of image and what it could do. Alternative thoughts, or alternatives. They had some look tests and stuff. Few people who were also on that team got in the production team of the new film as well. And this was something that might have prompted them to think of me. And then when Param (Parambrata Chatterjee, the director of Abhijaan) called me he was like, 'Would you do this? Like would you be into it?' And for me it was a no-brainer. 

Were you able to put your dislike aside while playing the character?

Yeah yeah, absolutely. Because then I am an actor. You called me as an actor. So now I am not Q the director. When I'm rapping I'm not Q the director. That guy won't be able to do shit like that. So then I'm Gandu. Now I'm Satyajit Ray. An actor has a great advantage that they can hop characters like that. Performers have the best job actually and I'm always trying to, like an imposter, get in and do something — with music, with acting, whenever I can. 

For instance I've done a fairly major character in a Bejoy Nambiar film, which nobody in Calcutta knows about. Only Kerala people recognise me as a villain who was beating up Dulquer Salmaan. Because Bejoy knew I could do some shit like that. But no casting director will cast me, obviously, because they don't know me. Everyone assumes I have a certain kind of character based on a public persona, whatever that might be. (Laughs). And that's constantly being manipulated by me. 

Gandu (2010)
Gandu (2010)

What was your approach to playing Ray? Did you pick up mannerisms and body language and style of smoking and things like that?

Totally. Because it was a period piece, a biopic, I had to. I got myself into that mode. Because otherwise we are extreme polar opposites in terms of how we speak, hold ourselves, and it was a different time. So people used to behave different physically. So that was great fun. I love that process, that I can be someone else. 

What are the things you picked up from Ray's persona?

One of the major problems was cigarettes, because I don't smoke cigarettes. So I was continuously smoking and smokers are different people. They hold their hands very differently. When you smoke joints you don't do that. So that and the fact that I would be in those costumes for a long time and trying to be comfortable even in the jangia (underwear). 

In the teaser you don't sound like him. You sound like yourself. 

We were supposed to dub. It's not a sync sound film. So it's not the right delivery. I am not a seasoned actor. For me to deliver the whole thing at the same time would need me to go through more intense workshops, which we didn't have time for. I was paying more attention to the physicality. And this was an ensemble piece, with a lot of people, playing a lot of characters. So individual attention would be difficult to achieve. So one made most of the time one got. But given the opportunity, we will make him sound like him for sure. The ideal situation would be that. 

What's the kind of material you looked into?

I didn't have to, thankfully, watch all his films. I had to watch films made on him. And whatever footage I could get. I surrounded myself with those images. That's the kind of route I took, not the emotional part. The thing was to place the sense of humour, because he had a keen sense of humour. But again, for me to find that was troublesome because I couldn't understand where it was. Those kind of things. It was not difficult to find that, because there is a lot of material on him. 

Is this you trying to be more open? Would you have done it 10 years ago?

Yeah yeah. I was going to do it 5 years ago. I don't think the point is that. I am anti his films, and that time, and how that time influences us right now as Bengalis. And is limiting us severely. That's what I dislike.

Bhanu Banerjee was an indie filmmaker, dude. Bengalis thinks he is an actor-joker. I think he was Buster Keaton… If I were to look at anybody at that time I would look at that guy to learn from him. Not Satyajit Ray, who is a bourgeoise upper class filmmaker.

If I were born in that time, there were many other people like me. I feel the closest to Bhanu Banerjee. Same time. Same situation, alright? Same studios he is working with. Bhanu Banerjee was an indie filmmaker, dude. Bengalis thinks he is an actor-joker. I think he was Buster Keaton. So how come you wouldn't give preference to me thinking that Bhanu is Buster Keaton and who I should follow? If I were to look at anybody at that time I would look at that guy to learn from him. Not Satyajit Ray, who is a bourgeoise upper class filmmaker.

My politics doesn't allow me to appreciate his films. So this is a very deep kind of socio-political position from where you function and from where you are creating as well. And since I'm a filmmaker, I'm very, very aware of where I position myself and I firmly position myself on that side. Following Bhanu Pelo Lottery, rather than Apur Sansar. 

Do you not find anything to appreciate in his films?

Films take up a long time. You have to give it 2-3 hours of your life. I would rather watch something made by somebody I like. Like I'd watch the worst Herzog film sometime. But at the same time (Laughs) I can't take it out of context that Herzog used to love Satyajit Ray. He never used that craft at all. But I think he had this exotic view of Ray and how he was and all that. He loves India. I mean, he finds it very exciting. He photobombed us in Sundance. But the legacy is very clear. That I don't have to be into Satyajit Ray, I can be into Herzog. Herzog was into Satyajit Ray's films, let him be. 

Writer Naman Ramachandran, Q, actor Shashank Arora and Werner Herzog at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, where Q's 'Brahman Naman' was in competition.
Writer Naman Ramachandran, Q, actor Shashank Arora and Werner Herzog at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, where Q's 'Brahman Naman' was in competition.

Most people are fans of Ray, including myself. But I don't see how contrarian views can do any harm. 

People don't want to know yaar. The day they open up, they will all starting understanding the holes. There were stunning filmmakers working at that time, who didn't get fuck all… Satyajit Ray and I have very familiar things: like art filmmakers don't like me. At that time art filmmakers didn't like Satyajit Ray. Because he came from bigyapon he knew how to fucking project himself. Who shot that picture at Cannes, that made him so alluring? Nobody else had a picture like that. Do you think other Indian filmmakers didn't go at that time? There were other filmmakers.

They didn't get themselves photographed like that, holding the cigarette properly. So he was taking up all these projection ideas from that time and Fellini was doing that, Godard was doing that. The 60s movement was there. Everyone had a cigarette in their mouth. And no bhadralok Indian would do that and once he did that he was the cool guy. So all kinds of these image making things he was doing as well as making movies. And therefore he had this larger-than-life image and he was very, very clever. But if you look at the filmmaking itself or the craft of film, I would place a Bhuvan Shome anytime over any of his films. 

I would say even Robi Shome is better than his films. But nobody will accept that. They might still consider Bhuvan Shome. I am not even saying Ritwik Ghatak. Bengalis cling on to these binaries and that's the problem. Ritwik didn't get anything, he was an alcoholic, and died. Ray was the good boy/ Ritwik bad boy. Simple binary. 

I guess your dislike for Ray is twofold: one is the filmmaker, the other is the utmost reverence that the Bengali culture has for him.

That's why I did Tagore also (in Tasher Desh). The fact is that as Bengali filmmakers, anything we do we have to first cross that fucking bridge. It's an unfortunate thing. If you start telling Takashi Miike, when he is starting to work, that 'Dude, Oshima did this long back, what the fuck are you doing?' Would there be a bloody Takashi Miike? 92 films. There is a (fictional) African language called Ku. The tribes who speak in that language believe that those who have died, you don't take their names. Then you can't move forward in life. I find that extremely relevant for our culture.  

The film where you are playing Ray is about Soumitra Chatterjee, who has been called "one of the last renaissance figures in Bengal". I'm sure you have a strong opinion about that. Doesn't being a part of a project of this sort, then, contradict your worldview?

No, that toh even people who support BJP have worked in the film. See, people need to understand that if you are not a rightist, if you're on the opposite side — and I am a leftist — I'll assume that different kinds of people will live in this world. They will all coexist and no one will think alike. It's best if everyone is unique: that's the ultimate leftist fantasy. People who are at the right centre just don't understand this. If you like this then why are you not liking that? This animosity is not in leftism, boss. I like watching these kind of films, but that doesn't mean I piss on other kind of films. It's because I'm constantly being asked about Satyajit Ray that I have to piss on it. Otherwise I don't need to.

If the culture wasn't so repressive, one would think 'Oh shit, see, we have so many stalwarts to stand on.' We would stand on their heads. We would be taller. But you will not let me climb. These kind of associations and allusions you can bring in to many things. These kind of questions that are black and white don't really mean much to me. If you analyse it like that you wouldn't understand it. 

There has been some criticism about you making a series for Hoichoi (Taranath Tantrik). The criticism being that being the poster boy of indie, how come you are working with Hoichoi, which is, pretty much, the establishment when it comes to Bengali cinema. 

I have worked with the biggest capitalist empire right now in media: Netflix. What are you talking about? Netflix launched with my film. OTT is mine, okay. Fuck that shit. I don't even care about these kind of stupid questions. These are stupid questions from people who don't understand anything about what's going  on and what'll happen 2-3 years, 5 years later. I run an independent company. We produce ourselves. Those are independent. We have our conditions. We can land it anywhere. We have to choose the landing spot. And there is no theatre business anymore, so no distributor. We have bypassed that long ago anyway. People are late to the party. 

I don't think this is in any way Babu system. That shit went out in the 90s also. But people are not getting it. Hoichoi is not my producer. It is the platform that will host these works that I am doing, my new works in Bengali. If they weren't doing that, I wouldn't have worked in Bengali again. I had left. But it's great that you have a landing platform that's not going to say anything to you. Whatever you want you can do. That's what they told me. I am doing that. I'll do more. 

You're doing Thakurmar Jhuli for the platform. How's your interpretation going to be like? 

It's a mad adventure. And it's super funny. And it's not that kind of funny — that I really like — which is to make fun of someone and make them feel bad. But this is kind of seriously funny, but if you're in the trip. So if you're tripping out, it's like a stoner comedy, where you won't probably understand what's going on. But if you're getting it, then you'll go for a really rollicking ride. We are very happy with it, as we were with Taranath.

I was going through your earlier interviews and you were very hopeful about streaming platforms. I can't help but bring this into the conversation because just today, Amazon Prime edited out bits from Tandav because of pressure from the right wing groups.

When was that interview? 

Early days of streaming. 

'Shomoy bodle jacche boss'. (Times are changing, boss). 'Ajker kotha porshu din bashi hoe jacche'. (You say something today, it gets stale day after). We had been hopeful then, and we have been able to realise some of that hope as well in some ways. And we are not that hopeful anymore. 

It's now under the purview of the I&B Ministry. 

It's television now. There is no other word for it. This is the new television. Now serials will be made again. Different kind of serials. When TV first came, some revolutionary works happened, remember? People don't see it like that. The art filmmakers who were not getting the funds to make the films, they ended up making these epic television dramas at the beginning of Doordarshan, from Tamas to Khandaan to Humlog. You have a plethora of amazing fucking stuff. Which they could otherwise not have done if a new medium had not come out. So the emergence of the OTTs were kind of like that for us, and in India some of us are trying to still push it and see if there's something that sticks. 

Anything will be capitalised very very fast and in a capitalist society like ours, which is not a very developed sort of capitalism. It's like an early stage of capitalism which got fermented very quickly. 

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