Brahman Naman (2016), the Sundance favorite recently acquired for a global premiere on Netflix, presents itself on the surface as a raucous, boundary-pushing comedy played for laughs. The film follows Bangalore University’s quiz team captain Naman (Shashank Arora) and his fellow virginal teammates as they travel across India to compete in the championships, lusting after every member of the female gender, real or imagined, along the way.
But as the story develops, Brahman Naman moves beyond its teen coming-of-age, nerds-against-jocks, lust-for-the-dream-girl starting points, using a Trojan horse technique to subtly direct audience attention to more serious issues. By the end, the light-hearted comedy draws its audience into questioning darker aspects of Indian society, most notably its damaging caste system and deeply entrenched sexism.
Screenwriter Naman Ramachandran and director Q (short for Qaushiq Mukherjee) are both Brahmans who feel compelled and well-situated to send up the caste system by turning a mocking eye on the culture that raised them. When ScreenPrism met with the filmmakers at Sundance 2016, Ramachandran called the film a "best of highlights of all my loser friends." But while Ramchandran even gave the protagonist his own first name, he clarifies that the character is far from an alter-ego. "It’s named after me because I didn’t want to foist this loser-dom upon anybody else," Ramachandran said. "The film is not autobiographical, but it is informed by certain events that happened in my past lives and also in my friends’ past lives. All these things can’t happen to one person." Although Ramachandran denies any close resemblance to the fictional Naman, the quizzing portion at least is drawn from his actual experience: "I'm out of practice, but yes, we were one of the champion teams of India."
Another important reason for choosing the "Naman" name is the moniker’s handy rhyme with "Brahman." For those who may not know about India’s caste system, Ramachandran explained, "The way it works in India is, right from the dawn of time, society is divided into four castes. The Brahmans are the so-called highest caste. They are the priestly class, and they are supposed to have lots of knowledge. The Ksatriyas are the warrior class, so they fight our wars for us. The Vaisyas are the trader class—they make money. And the Sudras are the so-called lowest class, Untouchables, and they clean toilets. The point, what we were trying to do, is send up this whole class system which has destroyed India for the last 2000 years."
Q elaborated on the urgency of addressing the extreme classism of Indian society. "Now is the time because, in the modern age, India is going through a huge shift in terms of class dynamics, in terms of money, religion," he said. "It's critical to step in and start talking about this. Untouchables [are] taking their lives as we speak."
Amidst this critique, the filmmakers also uncover a deep-seated sexism in the upbringing of the characters we follow. What first appears to be a movie about typical teens wanting unattainable girls grows into a darker and sadder critique of problematic assumptions that are implicitly encouraged in young men. Q says, "For the last three years, Delhi has been termed the rape capital of the world. There are rapes happening at the rate of four a day, I've heard, in India. So there seems to be something really, really wrong with the way we bring people up. With the way boys are brought up, most importantly. Girls are always kept in. Boys are given this idea that they can do whatever, and very little critical information is actually provided. We wanted to address that but in a very light-handed, casual way because there's such a deep, integral problematic thing in our country that, if we talked seriously about this, I don't think it gets the point across. Because there are a lot of people talking seriously about it, but nobody takes it seriously. So if we laugh about it, maybe something will subconsciously speak through. We just wanted to be the mirror to ourselves, to show how ugly we look."
Naman added that the film – which opens with Naman satisfying himself with a refrigerator after a quote about the ugly, pointless evolutionary experiment of the male youth – is "unabashedly sexist against men. The boys are very sexist in the film, but they all get their comeuppance. The women walk away with the film." Naina (Anula Navlekar), Naman's crush who intimidates him by proving herself his intellectual equal, calls Naman a great quizzer, a Brahman fundamentalist, an alcoholic and a sexist before adding, "Only you would take that as a compliment."
Actor Tanmay Dhanania, who plays quiz team member Ajay and calls himself an "aspiring quizzer" in real life ("I got a bronze in a quiz championship… I was one of those guys who wants to be on the quiz team really badly"), noted that classism and sexism are not separate battles. "Sexism is connected to the whole caste system as well,” he said. “Because what happens in India, the male doesn't need to find a mate because the parents, through the arranged marriage set-up, find a mate for him. He doesn't need to be a good lover or a person who can actually go up and talk to women. So he thinks that he can do whatever he wants and hit on women in bad ways and be sexist."
Lead actor Arora says the "atrocious" caste problem in India "surrounds us every day" and is a huge problem for everyone, even those who aren’t direct victims. Sid Mallya, who plays the quiz team’s hated rival, Ronnie the jock, found that the story's sexism reflected his experience at UK boarding schools. "British boarding schools, I will tell you on record, are the most sexist places on the planet," Mallya said.
But the actors noted that their job was to approach the characters from the inside out, rather than contemplate the social impact of their behavior. As Arora explained, "I wouldn't say we played them as patriarchal, chauvinistic. We played them as boys. We let the story and the text bring out the [those issues]."
Shashank Arora as Naman in Brahman Naman (2016)
Dhanania said their task as actors was to "get under the skin of it. So we weren't judging our characters. We weren't like, Okay, we're going to play these kids as misogynistic or sexist. We just had to find that adolescent nature of these characters, which brings them to make mistakes. In the long run, when you watch the film, it very cleverly points out how the upbringing of these boys leads to this happening. There are no sex education talks in school… all these things came out once we'd finished the film, once we saw it all together." Still, the actors’ job was not to view the script from outside but to "enter that zone."
That the actors and filmmakers were not overtly judging the characters is pivotal to the film’s simultaneous capacities for entertainment value and social impact. While mocking the boys, the filmmakers invite us into their world for an enjoyable ride. We appreciate that the boys are brilliant, well-educated, assured, raucous drunks with charming nerd exteriors. (Mallya notes that, deep down, his jock character envies these boys: "It was the sports jocks who were the cool guys at school, but if you look later in life, it's the intelligence that takes people further, and it's the Ronnie's of the world who end up not moving on because they get so consumed in this bubble from a very young age that they can't break out of.") By welcoming us in to an intriguing world, the filmmakers hope to sway our automatic, underlying assumptions about class and gender without hammering in a didactic message or wasting a good opportunity for a laugh.
Tanmay Dhanania as Ajay in Brahman Naman (2016)
Brahman Naman features a few scenes of outrageous bawdy humor – including Naman’s graphic liaison with a fish tank – that almost make American explicit sex comedies like American Pie (1999) look tame. But Q believes that censorship in India will not be a large problem for Brahman Naman because it belongs to a genre with a strong track record in the country. “We have a history of sex comedies in India, which are quite crass and far cruder than what we have come up with,” Q said. He noted that the Indian ratings system is different to that of the US, but some cuts to the film’s graphic moments would not be a serious blow: “To reach a wider audience, we might have to lose a penis there or a vagina there. I think we give you some of our collective intelligence in putting it together, and I think it’ll fly in India.”
Ultimately, though, Brahman Naman, which is in English, was conceived with the intention of reaching both Indian and international audiences. Q, never inspired by Indian cinema, said, “I’m a filmmaker because of international films.” From its inception, the script, as developed by producer Steve Barron and Ramachandran, came to Q already looking like an international film. “Having said that,” Q adds, “I think that India right now is at a point where this kind of narrative works with the youth completely. I don’t see a difference between a guy or a girl who’s in Delhi and a guy or a girl in Glasgow or in Warsaw or in Connecticut. The world has become a much more homogenous place, which is not particularly great all the time, but it works to our favor in this context.”
Still, the choice to write and film Brahman Naman in English was more than a production decision to target an international audience. Again, it relates to the film's ambitions to accurately portray the Brahman class. As Ramachandran noted, the characters depicted live in an anglophile, English-speaking environment that is little seen onscreen. “The fact is that people of a certain socioeconomic background, like the people around this table, even when we are alone with each other, we do speak to each other only in English,” Ramachandran said. “That is something that is not reflected in Indian cinema at all. There are very few Indian films in the English language, and if they do, they speak in stilted English.”
Now that the film has been picked up by Netflix, Brahman Naman is likely to be seen by large Indian and Western audiences alike. The Hollywood Reporter reports that "the global push for Brahman Naman feeds into both the company's expansion plans in India as well as targeting the large Indian diaspora and fans of Indian cinema around the world." This well-supported international distribution will serve the filmmakers’ aim of provoking discussion about class and gender issues through the medium of comedy.