Cult Cinema: Gandu

Five years later, we review Artsploitation's release of Gandu. Can they do no wrong?

Larry Clark apparently has a distant Indian cousin as demonstrated by cult underground anti-Bollywood provocateur Quashiq Mukherjee (or Q for short) and his controversial do-it-yourself indie shocker Gandu.  From its crude title (translated in English to Asshole) to its sensory onslaught full of hard drugs, explicit sexuality and a lot of Calcutta rap courtesy of the film’s titular charismatic street rat (esteemed Bengalese actor Anubrata Basu), Gandu announces itself as a defiant call to arms spoken of the same breath as Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima and fellow Indian rabble rouser Deepa Mehta. 

Largely driven by the film’s soundtrack supplied by Bengalese alternative rock band Five Little Indians, Gandu is punctuated by scenes where the wandering freebasing pickpocket yet aspiring freestyling antihero breaks the fourth wall and raps directly to the camera, making this Indian provocation something of an experimental hip-hop musical.  When Gandu isn’t stealing from his mother’s dirtbag lover just to get through another day, he befriends a Bruce Lee obsessive rickshaw driver who shares his dream for getting out and making it big while simultaneously enabling Gandu’s drug habit.   Pure in expression and poised to challenge puritanical sensibilities within its region of origin, the film plays like a slice of urban life on the rocks where it’s unclear whether or not the film’s hero succeeds or simply succumbs to another alkaloid fueled high. 

Shot on location in Kolkata digitally in black-and-white with a Canon EOS 7D Single-lens reflex camera with burned in English subtitles that shift positions and colors throughout the screen ala Adam West Batman, Gandu immediately achieves a free form grittiness which has the feel of being made up on the spot.  With one graphic sex sequence in color and occasional shifting aspect ratios from 2.35:1 widescreen to open matted 1.85:1, like the film’s stoned and possibly stupid protagonist, Gandu is visually all over the place.  The film also makes frequent use of rapid-fire editing and has the feel of a collage as the dumb but undeniably angry wanderer meanders about the slums of Kolkata, giving viewers a kaleidoscopic window into a world infinitely more impoverished than Detroit.   

That’s not to say it’s all down and dour.  Gandu might be thick but the urban decay of Kolkata is his oyster and much like the epicurean hedonism of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, we can’t help but share with Gandu his aspiring desire to break free no matter how hard his actions only work to keep him trapped.  For a film about losers stuck with nothing, it’s surprisingly hip and funny particularly with our hero’s newfound sidekick who plays like a cross between Bruce Lee and Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite

As for the explicit sex scene, which is most definitely unsimulated and shot in such a way that feels plugged in with the same abstraction purported by Michael Winterbottom’s pretentious 9 Songs, like anything in Gandu’s episodic journey it comes and goes.  Shot in color replete with an actress sporting bright fluorescent red hair not unlike a live action anime character, the graphic interlude might be confrontational and designed to turn tables in Indian censorship standards (the film remains banned in India) but still ultimately amounts to another surreal and possibly imagined encounter in a long list of misadventures.  That’s not to say it’s without purpose or comes across as merely prurient.  Everything in Gandu is designed to form the anarchic perspective of the film’s hero and gives voice to an entire populace of Indian street rats adorning the gutters and alleyways of Kolkata.  They might be victims of circumstance or their own worst enemies in most cases, but like the rest of us they’re waiting to be heard and dream of life beyond squalid ruin.  For as far off the rails as the hero in Gandu does or doesn’t fall depending on your interpretation, there’s a bit of his rage filled idiocy in all of us, wanting more out of life than being stuck with nothing.


-Andrew Kotwicki