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The Contradictions of ‘Love in India’

New America Media, Q&A, Neelanjana Banerjee Posted: Feb 14, 2010

Every year, right-wing Hindu groups in India -– like the Shiv Sena –- burn Hallmark cards and harass affectionate couples to protest Valentine’s Day. This yearly flare-up of repressive attitudes about love and sex face off against India’s booming population and the daily worship of Radha and Krishna – Hinduism’s most erotically charged divine couple.

Indian filmmaker Kaushik Mukherjee, otherwise known as Q, delves deep into these contradictions in his intimate documentary Love in India, recently released in the United States. Starting with his own relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Q talks to everyone, from his mother to a rickshaw driver to tantric practioners, to get a handle on how the ancient and the modern are defining India’s sexual manners today.

Based in Kolkata, Q represents a new wave of independent Indian film that takes its inspiration from alternative music and anti-Bollywood aesthetics. Before turning to film fulltime, Q worked in the advertising industry where he made over 100 commercials. Neelanjana Banerjee caught up with him when he was in San Francisco promoting Love in India.

Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I am a failed musician actually. I grew up in Kolkata, and in the early 1990s, when we were feeling totally desolate and depressed because we didn’t have really anything to call our own, there came this guy named Suman Chatterjee. He was this poet singer, kind of [Bob] Dylan-ish figure. I was like a groupie. That’s how I got into music big time, which led me to everything else. I was a raver with orange hair for five years.

Was that in Kolkata?

No, by that time I’d lived in Delhi and Mumbai and Colombo working for advertising.

You seemed to have gotten a lot of experience for your film career in advertising. What were you doing in advertising?

I was a writer and then I became a designer, because advertising was changing. It became not about copy and art anymore – it was about ideas. I found myself in the right groove there, but I was coming from a Communist background. My father was a Communist in the Leftist/Marxist way. I grew up in that environment. For me, [advertising] was the opposite of that.

So, you think of music as the inspiration for your work and not Bollywood or even Bengali art films?

In India, I was never interested in film because Bollywood never excited me. The last good Bengali cinema was in the 70s. But in Goa, when I started getting into [electronic music] and I found Asian underground, I was really, really swayed by it. Then, when I was living in Colombo, I discovered this whole scene that was happening in Europe and in Asia using video. This new cinema movement was neither commercial, nor what we call in Bengal, “art film.” It was art house independent film with lots of things to say. It was fun and colorful. It was not morbid and sordid like the kind of cinema we saw growing up. So, that was a blast and a half, and that’s when I started getting really interested in making films.

Is this when you began work on India’s first “Dogma” film? [Dogma films are part of an avant-garde film movement started by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in the mid-1990s that aims at purifying film by moving away from special effects and big production numbers.]

In 2002, I came back to Kolkata and started doing the Dogma film Tepantorer Maathe. It was a subversive, postmodern version of this old Bengali fairy tale on video. And nobody had heard of video then, in Kolkata. It was a disaster. (He laughs.) The kind of imagery I was trying to create was deglamorizing cinema because we live with that candy-floss image [from Bollywood]. I was trying to completely destroy that with this film.

It was never finished. The producer had a heart attack when he saw it. They thought I would do a cool Bollywood-y kind of stuff. We finished shooting and editing it. It was into post-production, when we decided to stop it – when the money stopped coming. Now I can bring it out again. It is still extremely relevant. At the preliminary screenings in 2002, there were shocking reactions! The intellectuals really buried me. So, I was broke and I knew I had to go into advertising again to make some money.

What was the inspiration for Love in India?

Love in India was never a film for me. It was something I always thought about. I was always interested in Indian myths. All these stories that we have, even the myths of Ramayana and Mahabharata, they are fully subversive texts. They have layers and layers of meaning, and different definitions of time and space and human life and human condition. I thought that was a lot of fun and, … a trip. By that time I was a raver, so I was tripping all the time. I’d been smoking [marijuana] since I was 20, and I really think those are traditions that go a long way back, deep into the Indian psyche. Ganja for us was never a drug, it was a tool. We revered it and worshipped the plant. But that lifestyle, that idea, vanished quite a long time back from society. And I think there is a revival process that was happening in a lot of us. I realized that many people share these feelings and that is true the most about romance and sex.

We were all confused about sexuality growing up. We had these bizarre things that we heard, like you’ll go blind when you masturbate, and yet there was a lot of porn. But it was all underground. I was obsessed with porn and sex and that led me to when I started my relationships, when I started really interpreting sex in a personal context. I found that this whole condition was totally superficial and very confusing.

Had you planned for the film to be so personal – so much about your own relationship – from the beginning?

I knew it would flow from me to my family to my friends and in consecutive circles outwards and inwards as well, but I didn’t know that I would – at one point – start putting myself into the film as well. That happened about two years into the film. We were shooting and editing and realizing, and shooting again. It was a very complex structure, like love. I wanted [the film] to be like a relationship. So, the film is about two people or three or 30,000 – you never know, but it always about you as well. You might call it selfish, but I think it’s much more introspection than self-absorption.

Have you shown the film in Kolkata?

I want to bring it out properly. We are just putting it before the censor board and we’ll see what they say. Anyone who lives in India knows the repercussions about what we are talking about in it, especially in terms of religion. When we had our world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto [in 2009], they put up the extended trailer on the net and that trailer has been having steady 1,000 hits per day since May. I’m like really worried. We are close to 300,000 hits for a documentary trailer, man!

Your film really gives voice to a generation of people who want to see a change around issues of love and sex. Do you think that the change you explore in your film is happening in India?

It is about time. What we are talking about [in the film] isn’t rocket science. It’s not like I’m talking about something that isn’t there, that I just created out of thin air. It is a documentary. It documents an abstract idea. The fact is that there is no such thing as love. Romance is an idea – it’s imaginary. It’s the only abstract notion that everybody in the world seems to be connecting to, however rational they may be. Whereas sex is a fact – you can document sex. That’s why the Kama Sutra was written, that’s why tantra is tantra, because it can be documented and researched. It can be analyzed, rationalized or de-rationalized. And I think for the majority of Indians, this fact has been hidden. Now, it is time to look back and think about it.

Here's where you can get download the DVD for Love in India.

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