Berlinale 2018 Review: GARBAGE Savagely Attacks Religious Hypocrisy In Media Addicted India
Qaushik Mukherjee Directs Tanmay Dhanania and Trimala Adhikari In Scathing GARBAGE
A nation crippled by divisive partisan politics and violent religious and cultural hardliners. A nation in which anyone who doesn't expressly and enthusiastically support the right wing central government is labeled as traitorous and excoriated on twenty four hour partisan news channels night after night. A nation in which women are subject to sexual assault, harassment, both demeaned and revered for their sexuality, and in which trusting the wrong person can lead to a lifetime of repercussions.
Sound familiar? Welcome to India, 2018.
If there's one thing that Indian experimental filmmaker Qaushik Mukherjee, Q for short, has never been, it is afraid to say what he means. Ever since his shocking debut film, Gandu, in which a poor kid goes berserk in his search for liberation and atavistic satisfaction, Q has made it his goal to make films which satisfy his own artistic vision with little regard to commercial viability. As a result of this he's become known as India's most unpredictable - and unsellable - enfant terrible. Whether it is a psychedelic retelling of Rabindranath Tagore's Land of Cards (Tasher Desh), a deliberately paced horror film (Ludo), or an avant garde period sex-comedy (Brahman Naman), Q has always been one of the most aggressive and unique cinematic voices in India for nearly a decade, and with his new film, Garbage, he spares no hypocrisy as he shreds India's power structure and social media fixations with a hammer to the face.
Panishwar (Brahman Naman's Tanmay Dhanania) drives a mini-bus in Goa, the party capital of India. Day and night he totes around the thousands of tourists, local and international, between nightspots in this seaside resort town, all the while judging them silently. He is a devout follower of a local holy man, the kind who would be called a cult leader in the US, but in India is just the local "baba", demanding fealty and absolute devotion in exchange for salvation from the downtrodden.
Rami (Trimala Adhikari) is a disgraced medical student who retreats to Goa to recuperate after a sex-tape she made with an ex goes viral, leaving her open to non-stop harassment online and in person.
When Panishwar picks up Rami from the airport in Goa to drop her off at a friend's bungalow, it starts a downward spiral into violence and revenge that neither of them can stop.
Garbage is a bold, no holds barred attack on the hypocrisy of the religious right wing in India today. It attacks the establishment and the mob mentality not with the scalpel-like precision of something like Anurag Kashyap's recent boxing melodrama Mukkabaaz, but with the blunt force trauma of a crowbar to the face. And you know what? It works beautifully.
Like Gandu before it, Garbage has no chance of finding a home in Indian commercial cinemas. It is too violent, too unafraid, and too real to even be considered as a commercial viability. Not to mention the fact that the censor board would have a heart attack if they were ever subjected to its no-fucks-given up-front vision of an India on the brink of cultural warfare (which many might argue is already in full swing).
What is remarkable about Garbage, and the thing that outside audiences might not buy into, is that there is very little in this incredibly violent and salacious film that is not 100% viable. Every day the citizens of the world's most populous democracy are bombarded by violent imagery, whether it's on the news or at the hands of the thousands of Whatsapp group chats and Facebook groups where violent videos are shared dozens of times a day. Every week it seems like there's another viral video of a murder, a lynching, an immolation, or a stoning that is greeted with innumerable cheers and an almost negligible amount of pushback from the less medieval sectors of society.
What Q manages with Garbage is to put forward a vision of what he believes it will take to temper the out of control religious mania in the country, and unfortunately, his vision isn't pretty. Strong performances from Dhanania, who plays his character with a modicum of sympathy even as he does the most vile things to the most innocent people, and Adhikari, who wanders her world like a little girl lost and in search of a safe place, anchor the film and deliver the audience into this world that feels both exaggerated and too unreal to be real at the same time.
There's no doubt that Garbage trades on shock value to make its points, and there's also no doubt that it will hit many foreign audiences as too extreme to be real, but that's part of its beauty. Much like Jafar Panahi, whose own work is banned in his homeland and yet celebrated around the world, Q's latest work is the kind of film that needs to be seen and understood in context in order to truly make the kind of impact it deserves to make.
India, and specifically its film culture, is in a very dangerous transition right now. As films from across the budget spectrum are increasingly subject to censorial obstruction at the hands of overzealous politicians and local interest groups, it takes a bold voice like that of Q to make audiences stand up and take notice. There's no chance of Garbage getting through the kind of red tape that Indian censors seem to delight in tripping up lesser films with, but perhaps with the disruptive powers of Amazon and Netflix making new inroads in the country, there can be a way forward and a way for the people who need to actually see this film to get access to it.
2018 is going to be a big year for Indian cinema. With numerous films on the way from independent filmmakers that deliberately flaunt the established rules of what is acceptable on screen, there's no way that the censors can maintain the kind of stranglehold that led to 2017 being the worst year for commercial Hindi cinema in a long time. Leave it to Q, who has been on the front lines of the battle against censorship and self-censorship for years, to knock down the barricades that have kept cinema so safe in a nation that is so unsafe for cinema. This is the kind of disruption India needs, and the world needs to know that some Indian filmmakers are unafraid. Q is unafraid, and Garbage is proof positive that he is one of the most important working filmmakers in the world.