10 July 2016

Trivial Pursuit

My Mirror column on Brahman Naman:

A smartalecky new film about quizzers in '80s Bangalore treats its casteist, sexist and terribly horny teen protagonists with oddly unalloyed affection.

Brahman Naman, which released worldwide on Netflix last Friday, is being sold as a sex comedy, and I suppose it is one. But it's more accurately described as a film about being a smartalecky teenaged boy in 1980s Bangalore — in particular, being a quizzer. 

Sharply written by Naman Ramachandran and imbued with plenty of shock value by director Q (as Qaushiq Mukherjee, the director of such films as Gandu and Love in India, prefers to be called), the film is spot-on in its delineation of the Indian quizzing scene as a nerdy male subculture, sexist and sex-starved in equal measure. 

Ramachandran, who was an avid quizzer before he left Bangalore for the UK and started writing about films for Sight and Sound and Variety, clearly knows this world inside-out. The fetishisation of obscure trivia, the obsessiveness about minor things like where to sit, the cultic adoration of particular quizzers as '----' God, the offering of a position on the quiz team as a sort of entry into heaven, the sneering at girls when not leering at them — these are all recognizable to me from having been on the fringes of the Delhi quiz circuit in the 1990s. As is the particular brand of cynical coolth that could be established within Nerdistan — by drinking a lot, selling off prize-winning book coupons rather than allowing oneself to be excited about them, and then using the money to drink some more. 

Brahman Naman's protagonists Naman (Shashank Tiwari), Ajay (Tanmay Dhanania) and Ramu (Chaitanya Varad) do all of these things. They also smoke incessantly, vomit occasionally and jerk off often — and this being a film by Q, they do these in full view of an often strangely tilted camera. The darker, more elliptical Gandu had much more graphic sex, but Brahman Naman scores with innovative masturbatory scenes that are so crazy that they must be true — think fridges, fans and aquariums. 

A lot of this film is funny, if you're willing and able to laugh at the insides of horny boys' minds. Many Indian viewers will grimace in recognition of the nonstop terrible puns, long enshrined as a high form of wit in our 'good colleges'. But it's one thing to make jokes with similarly English-speaking friends about "cervix with a smile", or get up and bump seats so you get to say "Chairs!" before drinking. It's quite another to address the waiter at a cheap Bangalore bar as 'garcon', or order a drink in the same place by calling for "a beaker full of the warm South for the lad here". 

As an attempt at a linguistically accurate portrait of young English-speaking Indians in pre-liberalisation times, this film has a sole predecessor, Pradip Krishen's In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones, made in the late 80s and set in a Delhi architecture college in the mid-70s. 

But unlike Annie, where the English spoken by screenwriter Arundhati Roy's characters was embedded in a convincing matrix of Hindi and occasional Punjabi, Naman contains barely a word of any local language. What we get instead is locality by pronunciation. 

Let me explain. Brahman Naman seems conscious of the deep disconnect that its protagonists have with the world in which they live: their references are entirely Western, swinging between canonical English poems and contemporary American music. 

Apart from the hilarious adoption of Keats' "the warm South" by someone sitting in India (who's calling for beer or Old Monk and not wine anyway), we have Naman greeting the sight of his crush Rita with an impromptu rendition of Robert Burns' poem 'My love is like a red, red rose'. The boys affect a passion for Trichinopoly cigars because they were "smoked by Sherlock Holmes", not because they come from a town rather closer to Bangalore than London. 

Meanwhile, The Doors' 1966 version of Alabama Song, 'O show me the way to the next whiskey bar,' is practically the film's theme song. (And it isn't just the boys, either. Paddy alias Padma, member of the all-female Madras quiz team that floors our Bangalore boys on a train ride to Calcutta, comments on Naman's tongue-tied-ness with a sarcastic "I've seen Trappist monks speak more than your team captain". Which is all very educated, but it doesn't seem likely she'd have seen any Trappist monks growing up in Madras.) Even in a village on the Orissa-Bengal border, the boys can summon up only English. 

And yet, in one of the film's most dramatic moments - the final round of the Calcutta Superstars Quiz — all the Angreziyat that they've jhaaroed for so long comes to naught, merely because they cannot transcend the Indian pronunciation of a piece of American slang they have correctly guessed at. Their answer is deemed wrong, and they lose the quiz. 

The question of humour gets more complicated when it comes to the casteism and the sexism. Making the protagonists Brahmin supremacists could have been interesting, but Ramachandran's script stretches it too long and too thin, especially with Naman's constant commentary on "the servant classes" and hangdog rejection of what he thinks is a bottle of rum tainted by a non-Brahmin's mouth. 

There's something about the film's caricaturing of casteism that makes it seem like a distant joke, rather than the everyday reality it is. As for the boys' failed attempts to get the girls, their supposed comeuppance doesn't seem to change them at all. Naman, at least, ends the film as casteist and sexist as ever. It's hard to laugh at that, except bitterly.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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