TWO MONTHS AGO, the Navi Mumbai police busted the most peculiar 'racket'. An unidentified, ingenious entrepreneur had picked up on the city's space deficit and its lack of privacy. His solution was low-cost, though somewhat uncomfortable. He set up about eight to 10 makeshift shelters about 10 to 15 kilometres deep inside the mangrove jungle abutting Mini Chowpatty, a popular Navi Mumbai hangout and rented them out to couples desperate for some privacy. The rate was affordable—'100 per hour. The mosquito coil was complimentary.
The incident seems like a scene straight out of Love in India, the edgy 91-minute documentary directed by Kaushik Mukherjee, who goes by the initial 'Q'. In fact, if the film hadn't already been wrapped up and released by then, there's every chance this 'racket' would have been given the kind of coverage and analysis it deserved. Every aspect and player of the story—from the dearth of privacy to the ingenuity on the part of the entrepreneur to the reporter who ratted to the cops to the couples who no longer have the luxury of making mosquito-free love amongst mangroves—is symptomatic of the duplicitous nature of contemporary India's relationship with sex and love—the premise of Q's compelling documentary.
What merits acclaim is the film's tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the complexities that govern our dichotomous behaviour—our collective adulation for adulterers Radha and Krishna, and yet, our intolerance towards adultery; our veneration of the lingam and the yoni and yet, our disapproval of sex education; our endorsement of on-screen vulgarity and yet, our aversion to "indecency" off-screen; our indulgence in pornography behind closed doors and yet, our opposition to public display of affection.
When did sex become taboo? What are the repercussions of our collective repression? What are the symptoms of this malaise? These are among the key questions that the film poses as it investigates the popular conception of love and sex in India, pitting it against our traditional understanding which, as the film proposes, has been shaped by our reverence for Radha and Krishna.
Love in India kicks off with a personal exchange between Q and his lover Rii, who questions him about their affair:
"What do you hate about me?"
"What do you love about me?"
"What do I like wearing the most?"
"Nothing at all."
"How many times did you kiss me in five years?"
"Three lakh, sixty thousand, seven hundred and eighty six (times).
"Do you love me?"
"What does that mean?"
Love in India is an attempt to answer precisely that question, and to understand the equation between sex and love. The matter of sex was simpler to investigate, love, not so much. "Love is a social dimension. It is not a fact," Q explained to me over the course of a phone interview. "Sex is a fact, a physical reality. Love is an abstract idea which somehow every human being can claim to understand." He decided to approach the subject as precisely that: a social dimension, a societal construct that has been successfully implanted within a societal and cultural context.
The film surveys Q's relationship with his lover Rii and the world that exists outside of their affair but which informs and influences its current nonetheless. Narrative layers emerge through the spoken, the visual and the musical that sustain this movement between worlds and add to its complexity. Q's overarching narration holds all the fragments together to create one ambiguous whole and offers the viewer an almost anthropological enquiry into our collective discomfort with matters of the heart and of the crotch.
"A long time ago in India, we understood love and celebrated sex," said Q. "Today we live in confusion, repression and dichotomy." This is the general feeling that overwhelms the viewer as one confronts footage of scenes and images that are only too familiar. Like that of a couple trying to steal a kiss, or another playing badminton in a park, or other couples playing dandiya; graffiti featuring confessions of eternal love; and images of Bollywood kitsch depicting a hero and a heroine in the throes of filmi passion.
The idea of love is clearly pervasive in the Indian imagination. But being taboo, it assumes the status of the forbidden. Couples are punished, harassed and fined for the "crime" of merely being together in a park or for kissing in public. Living together is seen as an indulgence in sin, marriages continue to be "arranged" and not surprisingly, divorce rates have begun to soar.
The consequences are lethal and predictably, the casualties are mostly women. "Every six hours, a young married woman is burned to death, beaten to death or driven to suicide by emotional abuse from her husband. Every four hours, an Indian woman commits suicide over dowry dispute. More than two-thirds of married women in India have been beaten, raped, forced to provide sex, and 56 percent of Indian women believe that wife-beating is justified under certain circumstances," the voice-over informs as the camera depicts the all-too-familiar image of marriage rites being performed over a havan, a holy fire.
Although the narrative seems tightly wound and the film seems neatly packaged, Q confessed that the structure was never quite apparent. That is at least not until the third year of filming, which is when he decided he needed to put himself into the narrative for it to be more poignant and effective. "The film wasn't there, at least not until the last moment," he said. "I didn't make the film, it made itself. I was just shooting and filming and editing for five years."
In an age when Indian documentary filmmaking is more often than not inspired and influenced by the director's activist stance, Love in India feels like a refreshing retake. Though the director is a part of the narrative, the perspective is rarely ever tilted in his favour, which allows for multiple points of view from a host of people—housewives, divorcees, mystics, sculptors, researchers, friends, family and relatives. "I tried to talk to my mother, my aunt, my uncle, friends, people I knew. I went around in concentric circles until I found the right people. We must now learn from people who are uninformed," Q said.
But the film doesn't confine its survey to the uninformed. Instead, the director broadens our perspective by tapping into an existing historical discourse on love and sex through engaging interviews with scholars, baul singers and tantrics. And by referencing a vast repertoire of myths.
Besides Q and Rii, the two protagonists central to the film are Radha and Krishna, the "immortal couple", as the documentary note calls them. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film is the montage of a sculptor assembling clay models of the two mythological figures, coupled with a voice-over of a scholar who tells us how even the myth of Radha and Krishna has been appropriated by our conservative society. While we are encouraged to worship the two lovers, we have relegated them to the space of the divine so that they are seen as gods. "But they are us!" the scholar adds profoundly.
Production wrapped up in 2008 and the film premiered a year later at Hot Docs, an annual Canadian documentary film festival held in Toronto. Since then, the film has been doing the rounds of the international film circuit. Love in India was selected for the South Asian Film Festival in New York, the South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco and the Asia Film Medial in Rome. Soon enough, distributors stepped in and the film began to reach a larger audience. Arte, the television channel that co-funded the film, broadcast it to viewers in France and Germany. And rights were recently sold to Noga Channel 8 in Israel.
Within the first few weeks of the distributor posting the trailer online, over 400,000 hits had been registered; an indication that viewers could identify with the content, and that the subjects the filmmaker dared to explore were universal concerns. The documentary is now available for sale in India through Under Construction, an enterprising nonprofit group that curates and distributes independent films.
This ability to tap into an underlying collective consciousness and curiosity defines Q's forte as a director. But while Love in India has established his status as a provocative filmmaker, it's the hype surrounding Gandu, his latest film, which has made him something of a cult figure. The buzz isn't entirely serendipitous. Q's background in advertising most certainly helps him communicate with his target audience—the intellectually minded subcultural group within and outside the country that's been waiting for years for someone to push the envelope, without having to rely on mainstream methods to ensure commercial success. "If there's nobody else doing it, then I'll do it," said Q. "I'm a very happy rebel."
(Love in India is an Overdose Joint production, distributed in India by Under Construction (www.ucfilms.in), and is priced at Rs 500.)