The 'Naman' Behind 'Brahman Naman' - On Sex Comedies, Caste Issues, Salim-Javed & Werner Herzog!

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on February 18, 2016

Set in the 80's in the city of Bangalore, director Qaushiq Mukherjee aka Q's latest feature Brahman Naman is the story of four geeky teenagers led by Shashank Arora (of Titli fame) who are on a quest to win a national quizzing competition and also lose their virginity in the process.

Q's films have always elicited diverse and polarised opinions from the audiences, be it his debut feature GanduTasher Desh - a contemporary adaptation of a Rabindranath Tagore play or the gory horror flick Ludo. Brahman Naman seems to be the most mainstream of his projects yet. Even so, it appears risque & far-out, another of those typically Q projects.

The film premiered to rave reviews at the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition category. It also bears the distinction of being the first Indian film to be picked up by Netflix.

The film is written by the noted film critic and author Naman Ramachandran who writes for Variety and Sight & Sound among other international publications. He has also written Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography - a book that tries to decode the phenomenal superstar and Lights Camera Masala: Making Movies In Mumbai that takes a look at how films are made in Bollywood.

In a recent interview with us, Ramachandran spoke to us about scripting Brahman Naman, how the film intends to give a new lease of life to coming of age films and sex comedies in India, his writing process and the experience of meeting the legendary Werner Herzog at Sundance.

Republished below is the same.

Starting on a lighter note, there are things that ‘good Brahmin boys’ are supposed to do & then there are things you stay away from. Of all things, why did ‘You’ have to write a sex-comedy?

I am not a ‘good Brahmin boy’. I am a man sliding into middle-aged decrepitude who has seen too much of the world. Therefore it was only natural.

Say sex-comedy in India & it conjures images of cleavages, skimpily clad females & double entendres. How is Brahman Naman different, if at all?

Brahman Naman serves up its comedy straight with no double entendres and that’s the big difference. There is also a lot of word play, based on literature and that is unique. Plus, it is entirely in English. Sure there is cleavage and skimpily clad people, but in the film they are in the realm of fevered adolescent fantasy, not reality.

The film has the usual tropes, of a gang of sex-starved boys, a rich & good looking bully, an unattainable diva. What’s interesting is that you’ve somehow got ‘caste’ into this whole mix. How does caste fit in to a movie like this?

You’re drawn into the film thinking it is a sex comedy, and before you know it you find yourself in the middle of a gentle and subtle spoof of the hypocrisies of the caste system. Also, you’ll find that the boys are not usual – they are quizzers. And you’ll see that the so-called bully is a lost boy underneath the exterior. And the diva is a diva only in Naman’s mind. In reality she’s just a normal girl next door.

You’ve been writing on films for many years now, you’ve published a book too. While you’ve written for a film earlier, when did this urge to write Brahman Naman kick in? How did it start?

Our producer Steve Barron and I were in Bangalore researching for another project and he was present during my nostalgic catch ups with my oldest friends. He correctly surmised that some of those stories could coalesce into a great script. The experience of writing Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography and Lights Camera Masala: Making Movies in Mumbai definitely helped with the discipline.

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Naman Ramachandran (left) with Rajinikanth

The name of the film & its setting seems autobiographical. How much of your childhood is there in the film? Did setting it on a period & place you grew up in, make it easier for you to write it? Related to that is the question of why you chose to set the film in the 80’s and not in today’s times?

Let’s just say that some parts of the script may be informed by events in my past life, but it is not autobiographical. It is a gathering of instances that happened in many people’s lives, but it's pure fiction. Yes, you write what you know and setting it in Bangalore and Calcutta, the cities where I grew up, helped it flow, in spurts.

The film is set in the 80's for two reasons. One, the youngsters of that era had very little access to stimuli. There were no smart phones or internet, so they had to seek their thrills the old fashioned way. Also, the 80's were a gentler, slower time compared to today and we wanted to capture that essence.

Could you talk about the writing process? How did you go about it? Also did all these years of talking to & interviewing filmmakers & screenwriters seep into your process?

Writing is a lonely process. It requires enormous self-discipline and to procrastinate is easy. It is a question of looking at the blinking cursor and willing yourself to put down a few words. But, when it gushes, it is a flood. Having said that, I was fortunate enough to have sounding boards in the shape of the vastly experienced Steve Barron and Rose Garnett, who’s now the head of development of Film4.

A writer is always in danger of being too close to her or his work and they brought much needed objectivity to the process, telling me what’s working and what’s not. If a writer can swallow his or her ego and listen to considered and informed opinions, the resulting work will always be good. Personally, I don’t like to listen to praise, but only to what makes my work better.

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Naman (center) with Q & the cast of 'Brahman Naman'

My years of interviewing the great and the good of the film world did some influence on my process, particularly a fascinating interview with Salim Khan during the prep for Lights Camera Masala, where he shed light on the process of writing Deewar and during the same prep with Javed Akhtar on how they used to read voraciously and how they assimilated distilled essence of literature in their scripts.

Another big influence would be a lifetime of watching movies for a living. For example, it is only after writing the final draft that I realized that the script is imbued with the zany humour of Ravichandran's Kannada movies of the 80's, though in spirit only. And if you look at the film carefully, there is an oblique homage to Satyajit Ray’s Nayak.

Anything that Q touches acquires a peculiar energy & flavour. How has the film shaped up? How much has it moved away from your script? Was there a lot of improvisation on the sets?

The film has shaped up very well indeed. We stuck faithfully to the script as all of us, including Q, felt that it was in a good place. The improvisations happened before and after the shoot. Before the shoot, we had several weeks of actor workshops in Mysore to give the cast a lived-in look, get the body language and the interpersonal chemistry right. This is the period when Q and the DoP Sid Nuni devised the look of the film. The initial test shoots followed 80's rhythms but we are catering to modern audiences so we decided to abandon those and go with the full on Q mode.

After the shoot, our brilliant editor Manas Mittal, ably assisted by Dhritiman Das, found the inherent truth of the script and reshaped the material not in the sequence the script was written but into a naturalistic rhythm. We also came up with the idea of inserting cards with quiz questions on them that reflect the mood of the succeeding sequence. This was an idea born entirely during the post-production process.

The film received some really cool reviews at Sundance. Tell us about the experience of premiering at one of the best places an indie film can premiere at?

Park City Utah is a surreal place and looking back, it feels like an out of body experience. The -17 degree temperature added to that feel. It is indeed one of the best places for an indie to premiere. Just being selected was validation enough, but to be in competition was like the cherry on top.

Added to that, the international media pinpointed the film as one of the buzz titles of the festival and we were regularly stopped by people in the street who told us how much they enjoyed the film. And receiving rave reviews from revered international publications was very gratifying.

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From (L-R) - Naman Ramachandran, Q, Shashank Arora & Werner Herzog In Sundance

And meeting Herzog – tell us about that?

We were at the LA Times photoshoot when Tanmay Dhanania, one of the film’s leads, pointed out this distinguished looking gentleman. He looked exactly like Werner Herzog and indeed he was. We were all over him like a rash and eagerly wanted to discuss his films. But he would rather learn about our work and also said that he’s a great aficionado of Satyajit Ray’s work – particularly Mahanagar and Madhabi Mukherjee’s central performance in it. He also dispensed sage marital tips. Top tip – always listen to your partner and make him/her feel important.

The film got snagged by Netflix. When does it premiere there? Is there an Indian release any time soon?

We don’t have a Netflix release date yet, but it will be sooner rather than later. We are negotiating with an Indian distributor for an India release.

Given your experience covering this space, what do you think will be the impact of the coming of Netflix on the indie film scene in India?

Netflix is already a major player in the west and will be in India too. The biggest advantage of a Netflix release is that rather than going through a long and painful 2-3 year release window where the film is drip fed territory by territory, some 190 countries get to see the film at the same time, after its festival run.

It helps indie filmmakers to move on immediately to their next project, which is what we should all be doing really, rather than agonizing about the distribution of the last one.

Given how close the film hits home, are you eager, excited or worried about your folks watching the film? Unless they’ve seen it already, in which case, what was their reaction to it?

Much of my close family was at the film’s world premiere at Sundance. While my darling nieces and their husbands loved the film, my sister liked it too, but she has seen far worse from me. When asked to elaborate further, her only comment was – "My lips are sealed". :)


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