When I first saw Gandu at the Durban International Film Festival last year, there were a few walkouts but not as many as might have been expected.
Maybe those who had read the festival booklet and seen that this was already a controversial movie, with nudity, real sex, drug-taking and a fair amount of spoken (that is, rapped) obscenity, just decided not to go. I suspect those who left the screening did so because they were bored and/or bewildered, not offended by the explicit sex; that comes later in the film anyway.
The title of <em>Gandu</em> is a slang word that has variously been translated as <em>Asshole</em> or <em>The Loser</em>. Perhaps a good gloss for the South African market would simply be Doos, though The Loser is probably closest to what the filmmakers intended. The central character, who takes the sobriquet “Gandu”, is not an “<em>asshole</em>” as such, if that means a jerk or a person generally to be despised, though doubtless some would see him that way. He’s a loser in the colloquial American sense, because he has ambitions he finds it hard to realise, and not just because those ambitions are unrealistic but also because he’s living in a society in which such aspirations don’t mean much.
This Gandu is a young man living in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) with his mother, who may not be a prostitute in a formal sense but does entertain, er, gentlemen callers. And her reprobate son then tends to crawl into her room and try to filch a little cash from the man’s trousers as they hang over a chair. I haven’t seen many cinematic scenes as awkwardly, cringingly funny as that in which <em>Gandu</em> performs this robbery while mom is loudly fucking some hideous guy on the bed a metre or two away.
Gandu’s dream, it seems, is to be some kind of rap star. At any rate, the apparently realistic narrative is interrupted by mini-videos of Gandu rapping wildly, spewing out all his feelings of anger, frustration and defiance to a rough-hewn grungy-punky rhythm. For most of the movie I think we are to take it that these raps take place in Gandu’s head, somewhat in the manner of the soliloquies in a Shakespeare play. That’s when a character turns to the audience, as it were, and spills the contents of his heart.
These raps are extreme forms of self-expression, and that, in many ways, is what the film is about. Poverty is one of the causes of Gandu’s suffering, linked to a conservative, repressed society; these deny him the opportunity to say his say and to be heard. In this respect, the film is itself an example of what it is raging about: it’s about the struggle for self-expression, and the appearance of the film in India in 2010 becomes part of its story, for its context is the same repressive society that doesn’t want to hear Gandu.
The film has been blocked from release in India, where the government censor board (part of the ministry of information) deemed it pornographic, at best, and generally anti-social. It has travelled the world’s film festivals, though, garnering a prize here and there, and now has an international profile. It received permission for one legal, open screening in India, and its presence is now growing there too, probably magnified by its absence, apart from that one showing, from public screens. As the writer-director, styled as a mere “Q” in the film credits but really named Kaushik Mukherjee, noted in an interview, the film has now become the focus of arguments about freedom of expression in India. And, he might have added, despite the censorship it will not go unseen: India is one of the world’s capitals of DVD piracy, as well as being known for a certain amount of underground entrepreneurship – of which <em>Gandu</em> is an example.
So Gandu (Anubrata Basu) and his friend Ricksha (Joyraj Bhattacharya), a rickshaw driver who’s obsessed with Bruce Lee, bum around Kolkata or go on a circuitous road trip, get wasted and have druggy visions, nattering and joking and cursing and rapping all the way. This is shot in glistening black- and-white, except for when the film bursts into colour for what seem like epiphanic moments.
The meandering indirection of <em>Gandu</em>, for most of its running time, is probably what drove the walkers-out at the screening I attended. It has little conventional plot, obviously, because it is showing the plotlessness of such a life in such a place and time. And, of course, because it is challenging the conventions of mainstream Indian film with all its Bollywood razzmatazz: instead of riotous colour it has dingy black- and-white, and instead of sentimental disco-pop for a soundtrack it has abrasive home-made gangsta rap.
Parts of <em>Gandu</em> may bore or frustrate the viewer, but that’s part of its tapestry – a tapestry that is deceptively loose in its weave, but in which all the threads do, in some way, come together. And the boredom or apparent pointlessness of some scenes work brilliantly to soften up the viewer for the next outburst, the next weird vision or in-your-face sexual episode. It has no chorus lines, no glamorous stars or romantic melodrama, but contains more complexity and richness than any such fantasy spectacle.
<em>Gandu is showing at the Bioscope in Johannesburg. Go to <a href="http://www.thebioscope.co.za" target="_blank">thebioscope</a> for screening times</em>