Can I really begin a post with, “Shout out to Under Construction and Enlighten for taking a plunge into the shallow world of documentary film distribution in India”? Apparently, I can. I really must stop listening to Das Racist. It’s weird. Theirs isn’t really my kind of music. This might be related to the fact that I have absolutely no sense of rhythm. Whatever the reason, the fact is, I don’t like rap and hip hop. Never been a fan. But Das Racist somehow I keep YouTubing. They’re hilarious. As a result, despite the fact that I don’t really respond to that musical genre, I listen to and watch Das Racist and giggle. And I YouTube them, rather than downloading their free mixtapes. Who’d have thunk I’d find rap music, which I still don’t really like, so happy making?
Maybe I’m hitting a contrary age but there’s other stuff that I don’t necessarily like but to which I find myself responding. Like, the kind of soul baring that verges on exhibitionism. We all tend to read the personal in creative works that are made public. It’s the charm of following a tease. When I read “The Enchantress of Florence”, I was convinced that one of the sub-plots had Rushdie channelling his feelings about Padmalakshmi and their break-up. Given the setting of “The Tree of Life” and the fact that director Terrence Malick had a brother who played the guitar and died, is Jack Terrence Malick himself? For me, the fun is in sifting through details wondering whether something was entirely imagined, pulled out of thin air, or drawn from a reality that has either been felt or observed by the artist. So when someone looks straight into the camera and tells me their feelings, I appreciate and admire the candour but most of the time, there’s less mystery for me as a viewer, less intrigue.
Q’s “Love in India” certainly is candid. Narrated by the director himself, the documentary tries to plait together personal, social and spiritual attitudes towards erotic love. He films himself kissing and making love to his girlfriend Rii. He films himself, looking into the camera which is like an invisible mirror because he’s effectively staring at himself. He films his girlfriend, making the camera linger with palpable lust over her body. He interviews his aunts, his mother, his friends. Alongside these intimate bizarre family-album moments are chats with a moustachioed distributor of B-grade films in Kerala (I think it was Kerala), a Muslim girl who went to Shaadi.com to find a suitable Muslim husband, an Assamese girl who sings a song for a boy she has a crush on, amateur mythologists, folk singers and joint-sucking Sufi mystics.
“Love in India” seeks to point out the dissonance between our often violently prudish attitude towards physical intimacy and the erotic Hindu culture that is considered by conservatives to be the bedrock of the social code they champion. Q doesn’t do the obvious and point to Hindu temple art. He turns to our myths and texts. And out spring stories like how Brahma ended up creating something like a guidebook of sex with his daughter Sandhya. But for Q, more fascinating than Brahma’s incest is the tale of Radha and Krishna. He seems to see his own relationship with Rii as a curious modern parallel to the mythical love story between a teenaged boy (Krishna) and his much-married aunt (Aunt). For those who aren’t familiar with Hindu myths, what Q points out — that Radha was married, that Krishna and Radha never married, that he was flamboyantly promiscuous, that she was older than him and married to his uncle, that she taught him how to make love, that she is considered the ideal devotee because she is the most complete lover — may be a bit of a shocker. Some of us, on the other hand, have grown up on stories of Krishna’s mischief and spotted his unflagging libido years ago (and had fun with it because really, there are few moments that are as much fun as watching a devout conservative choke when you point out Krishna’s randiness). More interesting to me were Q’s interviews with people who talked about their relationships, like his aunt whom I wanted to hug tight when she said that she hates society for its prudishness and herself for having given up on a second chance at happiness because society disapproved of a widow falling in love. The scene where he perches his camera at a sex education class in a school and then talks to the teacher afterwards is both hilarious and mortifying.
Q shows just fragments of people in “Love in India” but through that prism, he shows a changing society that is wriggling at its restraints. The sexuality in Hinduism is obscured by rituals and the repressed express themselves through festivities like dancing the garba or talking about their relationships on the phone to a radio jockey with the pseudonym Love Guru. The police beat up couples for making out in a public park or holding hands even though many of them will offer prayers to a transgressive divine couple like Radha and Krishna or to a Shiva lingam, which shows a penis and vagina in coitus.
The parallel between Radha and Krishna, and Rii and Q is intriguing. As a couple that live together, they face much opposition from her family in particular. He’s been married once but hasn’t picked up his divorce certificate so in his head he’s still married and he hopes this will act as a deterrent to getting married again. Yet, perhaps like Radha, he’s full of love for Rii, an aspiring actress who seduces thousands through the camera, whom Q has had doing all sorts of explicit things with an actor in his own film “Gandu“. When in “Love in India”, Q shows Rii reflected in the mirror of her make-up case, singing a song whose lyrics are about being reborn as Radha, the make-up case is a reference to the shringar (the art of appearing alluring to your loved one) that Radha knows so expertly. The documentary begins with Rii crying and being forced to read a love letter that Q wrote her. Perhaps it’s a mirror to the pain that is as crucial an element of Radha and Krishna’s love story (aside from screwing 1600 other women while he’s with her, Krishna leaves her when he’s an adult and never comes back).
When Q dips his toes into Sufi and dehatattva philosophy and folk songs (of the Baul tradition, I think), “Love in India” becomes less taut. The essence that he’s trying to focus upon is the importance of knowing yourself and this self-knowledge being articulated through sex and sexual energy. It ties back to Q being the narrator, looking at himself through the camera literally and figuratively, bringing his family and friends into the documentary. While it works on the level of words and theme, it doesn’t actually come together quite so tightly in the film.
Watching “Love in India” was a strange experience. I know a bunch of the people that Q interviewed. I’m related to one of them. Suddenly, Q is separated by barely a single degree of separation and it’s unnerving because I’m not sure I’m comfortable with knowing as much about him as he is letting me know with “Love in India”. Contrarily, I was also trying to spot the spider web of fiction in this version of reality presented to me by Q. Q and Rii’s candour could have you miss how much he keeps away from the public eye. The only dynamic of their relationship that he shows is the sexual pleasure they take in one another. The two of them are one in their love of and interest in sex. But there are glimpses of differences between them that are very intriguing. She seems so much younger than him. Her English is rudimentary unlike his, which has the polished accent of upper middle class India. She constantly performs for him, eager to please, eager to shock. He lurks.
A friend of mine who saw “Love in India” told me, “It shows an India that’s way ahead of the game than the stuff Bollywood shows. This is the kind of thing that the West will love to see.” He’s probably right. But I think this is the India that India wants to see too. With our melancholia, our confusions, our inabilities, our awkwardness, our ignorance, our schizophrenia and our envious gaze at Rii who taunts us with her orgasms, this is us. I’m not surprised Q’s documentary won the National Award.
“Love in India” is also available on iTunes, Amazon and can be downloaded for a fee here. Other documentaries that are out on DVD courtesy Enlighten and Under Construction are Ashim Ahluwalia’s “John and Jane”, “Lokapriya” and “Rasikapriya” by Arun Khopkar, “Bishar Blues” by Amitabh Chakraborty, “7 Islands and a Metro” by Madhushree Dutta, “Children of the Pyre” by Rajesh Jala and “Unlimited Girls” by Paromita Vohra. Well worth a shout out.