Ask the Filmmakers: How did “Brahman Naman” Create the Aesthetic of Small-Town 1980s India?

Sundance breakout and recent Netflix acquisition Brahman Naman (2016) has the raunchiness of an Indian American Pie (1999), the plot setup of a John Hughes teen movie and the dorky yet stylish aesthetic of a Napoleon Dynamite (2004) in the package of a period comedy armed with lightning-fast dialogue. Set in 1980s Bangalore, the plot follows brainy quiz team captain Naman (Shashank Arora) as he and his teammates they desperately try to lose their virginities on a trip to Calcutta for the quiz championships.

While films like Napoleon Dynamite were a reference point, director Q (short for Qaushiq Mukherjee) never envisioned Brahman Naman as an American Pie-style diversion but as a complex comedy that built on the sex comedy genre while growing into something more substantial. “I am not a big fan of teen comedies, sex comedies even, in that certain classic genre way,” he told ScreenPrism at Sundance 2016. “But we informed ourselves about what had happened in the last 15 years in the world of cinema.” Aesthetically and narratively, the film makes reference to other comedies about the young male coming-of-age experience. Yet the aesthetic of the film is a unique, hybrid style that developed organically out of these absorbed influences and a workshop period with the actors.

Q’s visual style features a distinctive wide-angle framing to create a stylized world that showcases the story’s vibrant colors, textures and 80s costumes. The main characters, with their hunched posture, are often viewed through a lens so wide it nears distortion, making them appear mildly grotesque. Q explained that this signature style emerged organically during the rehearsal process and grew out of a philosophy of minimalism: “We kept shooting with these guys, their characters were changing within the camera, our camera was changing along with them.” The one idea he started with was, “I never sat the camera down,” but the rest came out of working with the actors.

“One of the major things that we decided was that we’d be minimal in what we do, so we had only two lenses to work with,” Q noted, “One was the 15mm, the wide. The other was the 85mm. When you’re in reality, you’re in 85mm. When you’re in Naman-land, in the way he thinks his life looks, it’s that extra-wide, going onto fish-eye but not quite.”

The cast of Brahman Naman (2016) as the quiz team of Bangalore University in the 1980s

In addition to being an aesthetic riff on American 80s movies and popular examples of the sex comedy genre, Brahman Naman faithfully recreates Q’s and screenwriter Naman Ramachandran’s memories of the culture they grew up in, down to the time period’s mannerisms, lighting and the rules of its quiz competitions.

Ramachandran gave the protagonist his own first name (“because I didn’t want to foist this loser-dom upon anybody else”), but he swears that the script is not truly autobiographical. Rather, he describes it as the “best-of highlights of all my loser friends.” The quizzing portion, at least, is drawn from Ramachandran’s actual experience: “I’m out of practice, but yes, we were one of the champion teams of India.” And, like the fictional Naman, he is a Brahman.

To help the actors adopt the time and feel of Bangalore in the 80s, the creative team lived together in one house in Mysore (“a city which looks like the 1980s,” according to Q) for four weeks. For lead actor Arora, becoming the arrogant yet brilliant Brahman captain of Bangalore University’s quiz team of the 80s was a process of observation, practice and physicality exercises. “The time and space is something I really had to understand,” Arora said. “I know nothing about the Brahman culture. I know nothing about Bangalore. I know nothing about the 1980s. So to approach this, it really was observing [Naman’s] body language, observing the way people in Bangalore spoke, trying to slow down everything because in that time, there wasn’t an urgency. Right now, I’m constantly everywhere, but in that time, there was a certain pace.”

“Their mobile phones were taken away, they were in costume, even the underwear,” Q said. “So we tried to get them into that 80s mode which [Naman and I] lived through as kids… For instance, all of them walk in a certain way. That is also because of their sacred thread. You have no idea how uncool that sacred thread can be. You’re constantly feeling that and it comes up somewhere to your hips, so you’re never feeling, like, really cool. They double up the posture because of the sandals they’re wearing, because of the sacred thread.”

Ramachandran (who displayed the sacred thread he wears on his person to me) also lent the fictional Naman his own sandals to help him achieve the physicality of the character. When Ramachandran left India 15-16 years ago, he took the sandals with him: “Those are my lucky charm sandals for the quiz. I kept them carefully preserved in London. So on the first day of the shoot, Shashank got those sandals, and he wore them throughout the shoot. On the last day of shooting, I took those sandals. Now they are back in London.”

Ramachandran created a vision of India’s quizzing world that was “100% accurate, as it was back in the 80s.” Since then, Ramachandran found in his research that things have changed. The scoring systems are different. No longer do questions pass from one team to another, but all teams can buzz in. Q also looked to a documentary from the 80s quiz world to aid in accurate recreation. “We gleaned from our memories,” he said, but the footage help him visualize the details. “The kind of chairs that they sat on, and the stage that they would have, the kind of light, really ugly light, no thought to it, any kind of aesthetic — we tried to get that feeling going in the film.”

Brahman Naman’s mix of the 80s-inspired cinematic flair and the grounding in real experience creates a filmic world that is at once intriguingly specific and broadly relatable, full of familiar reference points for almost any audience. Q feels that, increasingly, the difference between what an international and an Indian audience wants to watch is getting smaller. “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, while he feels that film’s serious topics are of a timeless nature, it was important to Q and Ramachandran to depict an India that was different to the more connected, globalized world of today. Ramachandran said, “One of the major reasons for its being in the 80s is that the boys, they did not have anywhere near the kind of stimuli that people today do. There is no mobile phone. There is no Internet. Pornography was limited… That’s why he’s fucking fridges. That’s why even a fully clothed woman automatically gets objectified. In the 80s they had no other outlets. It’s not like being in America or the UK. India, Bangalore then was a very small town, almost dead. Today it’s a hip, happening city.”

Q points out that the film begins with a big event for the boys: obtaining a pornographic magazine. “That was such a big deal, scoring the magazine. Today, we are going to score this magazine. One a month, that was it. And then we would just be sharing that. At the end of the film, when Rita dumps Naman, Ajay offers the latest issue of Debonair and that seems to do the trick. That’s how fucked up we were.”

“If you had a favorite uncle coming down from New York, you’d secretly tell him, please bring one copy of Playboy, and that would get circulated around,” Ramachandran said.

“All over the city and you’d be famous for a week!” Q added.

The special texture of Brahman Naman‘s revived 80s Bangalore world, in combination with Q’s stylized visuals and the global touchstones of the teen comedy plot, give this new Netflix addition a great chance of hitting home for a wide audience around the world.

Read about how Brahman Naman uses the sex comedy format to address serious topics like classism and sexism here.