Q’s Garbage, the only Indian feature at this year’s Berlinale (it had its world premiere in the Panorama section), zooms in on subject matter worthy of the director’s provocative style. The film opens with this note: “Although the events are dangerously true, this is a work of fiction.” The protagonist, Phanishwar (Tanmay Dhanania), is a taxi driver in Goa, and a rabid fundamentalist who – true to his name, “the king of snakes” – spews venom on social media platforms. He is affiliated to the Hindu Rashtriya Sangh, and a surrealistic scene involving oral sex and a godman (Baba Satchitanand, played by Satchit Puranik) is both hilarious and a horrifying illustration of how religion has been reduced to sheeplike adherence to rituals. Before the screening, Q told the audience, “I hope you will all be shocked” – but I wasn’t prepared for this.
If Phanishwar is bound and restrained by his sacred thread, Nanaam (i.e. the one with no name, played by Satarupa Das ) has a dog collar around her neck, and is chained to a wall in Phanishwar’s house. Her implied anonymity is intentional. Who is she? Where is she from? How did she meet Phanishwar? These questions, I suppose, don’t matter. The man is Patriarchy. The woman is its nameless, mute slave. (Through the film, Nanaam doesn’t utter a word.) The symbolism is obvious, but it’s a terrific fit with the urgent themes, which are in-your-face too – they stare at you from the front pages of newspapers. Q said that Garbage is his most joyless film, but this is also his most angry film. His rage is directed at everything. Revenge porn. The Nirbhaya tragedy. Lynch mobs. Godmen. You name it. The film isn’t subtle, but it gets under your skin.
The title is referenced both in lines (“I am garbage and garbage knows its place”) and in the dump yard that’s frequently seen. It’s also in the wrecked lives all around. The third character is named Rami (Trimala Adhikari) – she’s fled to Goa from Mumbai. Like Nanaam, she’s a victim, and the fact that she’s far higher up in the class ladder has not helped her. Till the end, she doesn’t have any agency either. A fuller review would touch upon a lot more: the gradual emasculation of Phanishwar by means of a disease that hits him where it hurts the most (and also, the sari he’s forced to wear near the end); the instances of male and female rape; the cage; the branding of Nanaam’s buttocks with a hot iron. But for now, listen to what Q – after a series of packed-house screenings at the Berlinale – has to say about Garbage.
There are many ways to make a point in a movie. Why do you opt for provocation? It’s very effective, of course, but is there the danger that what you say gets buried under the shock value in how you say it?
I think I’ve always been much more interested in form than function. I stand by my form. I truly believe that it is form that can push someone out of their comfort zone much more than what a general esoteric output might. I do think that I work within the periphery of the navarasas, and my chosen rasa is bhibhatsa [disgust], which gives me the width and breadth to explore the problematic subjects and issues that I wish to explore.
Before the screening, you told the audience that this was your “most joyless movie.”
Well, it was. Because as far as I am concerned, I have been making comedies so far. They’ve been fun things to me. My journey as an independent filmmaker is fraught with tension, ever-increasing debt and paranoia about bankruptcy, and just the eternal feeling of people constantly looking down on you because you are doing something that is weird and subterranean. That was the key fact in my life as an independent filmmaker, that I was having a lot of fun while doing my films. With Garbage, everything changed. Society has changed and the politics that I truly believed in is kind of becoming the only resort to any kind of meaning anymore. The world is getting serious, and therefore I am too.
I laughed at some scenes even as I was horrified by them – say, the oral sex scene involving the godman. Is this the reaction you were after?
Along with the godman, you reference Indra, in a story about an enchantress. What additional layer does this contribute to the narrative?
I would imagine all sorts of additions would happen after this scene. It is a pivotal scene, where the perspective shifts from the masculine to the feminine. The act of betrayal in this scene is the ultimate betrayal between the genders, and the fable we are referring to in Phanishwar’s monologue is the only time he actually speaks and is heard. It’s incredibly important, and it’s the transition between the third and the fourth act.
The colour red is very prominent. It’s the colour of a sari that’s used late in the film (shockingly, of course). It’s the colour of the lights in Phanishwar’s cab. And of course, it’s the colour of blood, which oozes out of both men and women. How did you see this colour in the context of this film?
My artistic life has been minimalistic, to say the least. I am a self-formed, self-informed, self-taught and self-educated artist, and I feel constantly like an impostor. I do not believe that I have the wherewithal of a gifted craftsperson. Therefore, I limit myself. I revel in restraint. I put the chain around my neck, and one of the key chains I put on was of colour. In my films – apart from Brahman Naman, which was kind of a separate piece by itself – I have relied on black, white and red to be the primary, dominant colours. Through these colours, I can really explore a gamut of associated emotions and cinematic meaning, which I think would get lost if I had used more. The simplicity of red is striking and alluring to me. I’ve always been fascinated by it. Garbage was deliberately discoloured and undersaturated to allow for the red to flow.
Garbage is filled with metaphorical scenes. Can you explain your reading of one – say, the scene where Nanaam dips a finger into her menstrual blood, dabs a bit on her cheek (like a tear) and then a bit in the parting of her hair (like sindoor).
I think metaphors should not be defined and should not be explained. I would rather that people see the scene and make their own meaning.
I would rather have a far more interesting, happy society than one in which people are hurting each other. I would really go back to the India of the eighties, maybe my childhood, which was fairly placid and extremely convivial. People used to care and try to understand each other.
Let’s talk about the disorienting, almost atonal background score? What flavour does this give you over a more conventional score?
We are indebted to [the Brazilian composer] Amon Tobin for this kind of noise-scape that I have been extremely inspired by, and so has Neel [Adhikari, the film’s composer], who has produced all the music for me since Gandu. The choice of cello as a key instrument and the way the cello sound is distorted, destroyed and fucked up in the film is something that came out of months of deliberation and debate. I think my musical space is definitely atonal as is my cinematic space. Music and cinema for me are kind of in coitus all the time, and therefore cannot be disengaged. Both have to be in the same sort of zone, in a peculiar space between where music ends and where noise begins.
With the exception of Rami’s first lesbian sex encounter, sex is a power game everywhere else. The person with the penis (real or fake) wields the power. Am I reading this right?
Yes, indeed. I think the fake penis is far more effective than the real. The delusion of the constant erection is what keeps the patriarchal society going. I do think this is a great deviation from my earlier work, where I used to bestow on the characters the knowledge of their sexual orientation and sexual intent. In Garbage, I clearly felt none of these characters had any agency in their sexual lives.
If people inflict suffering on others, they also suffer themselves. No one is free from pain, whichever stratum of society they are from. You seem to be talking about today’s Indian?
That’s an extremely nihilistic way to look at it. I would rather have a far more interesting, happy society than one in which people are hurting each other. I would really go back to the India of the eighties, maybe my childhood, which was fairly placid and extremely convivial. People used to care and try to understand each other. I lived in Calcutta, but in a cosmopolitan environment. I had neighbours who were Punjabi, Gujarati, Marwari, and there was extremely deep respect for diversity which we are missing right now.
But the title and the dump yard do depict the country today.
Given the number of people this film is going to inflame, did you worry if they’d use the title against the film, as in “this film is really… Garbage”?
I’d love for them to do that. I think I have always tried to reduce the collateral damage on my own self by calling myself what people would call me after watching the film. It started with Gandu and it’s continued with Garbage.