Stuck in his empty bedroom, forced to either listen to his mother (Kamalika) have sex with her sleazy, rich boyfriend (Silajit) or to pickpocket him in order to by lottery tickets, Gandu (Anubratu) dreams of a better life. He wants to be a rapper, and his head swarms with lyrics filled with anger and excitement about his place in the world, about girls, about money, about his mother. Gandu finds a friend in the streets, a Bruce Lee-loving rickshaw driver he calls Ricksha (Joyraj), and the two hang out, talking about what they will do when Gandu makes it big.
Gandu is a stylish, impressive independent feature bursting with experimental energy. The performances by its amateur cast, who are improvising much of the dialogue, are generally very good, and the direction pops off the screen, from the rapid-fire rap montages, complete with words covering the frame, to the seamless integration of what seem to be real people, captured in candid interviews. It's only too bad that I felt such little connection to Gandu and his feelings on his lot in life, or that Q's goals with the character of Gandu are frustratingly vague, on the tip of the tongue but never quite realized.
Based on the packaging for the disc, it's not hard to picture Q as a rebel, a madman with a video camera who filmed something semi-autobiographical. Frankly, while I was watching some of the rap sequences in the film -- especially with the comment from Q's interview in the booklet that music and his filmmaking were inseparable -- I may have forgotten that Gandu was played by an actor and not the director himself. Only in the making-of featurette do you get a chance to see Q in the flesh: a cheery, 30-something man with a lively sense of humor who seems totally unlike his protagonist. It's to his credit that the film brims with a vital energy, bursting at the seams with the anxiousness of a person with something to say.
Stylistically, his accomplishment is also incredibly impressive. The film's cinematography, by Kaushik Mukherjee, has a polish that some major Hollywood productions lack. The gorgeous black-and-white photography is accentuated by lively use of the subtitles and split frames that emphasize certain points. Occasionally, the film will cut to a brief moment of Q and A with random passerby, asking about a term, like "pornography," and key words will appear above and below the four frames of interview subjects, all in a row, across the screen. Q easily evokes various moods: the light comedy of Ricksha doing his best Bruce Lee, the playful intimacy of a woman conversing with her lover over webcam in a local web cafe, and the tumultuous emotional rollercoaster of Gandu's life. For a debut feature, Q delivers a remarkably assured end product.
That said, the story lets the movie down. Gandu's listlessness turns into the movie's listlessness. According to the movie, "Gandu" is Bengali slang for "asshole," and yet Q refuses to clarify exactly whether or not Gandu's ambition is foolhardy. On one hand, the musical sequences are so dazzling that it seems we should root for him, but the movie seems to like cutting Gandu's ego down to size, illustrated most clearly when Gandu wins the lottery and gets the fame and women he desperately desires, which may or may not simply be a hallucination brought on by a drug given to him by Ricksha. Other material aims for the kind of low-key comic drifting of a Jarmusch film, but ends up playing more dull than funny. The inclusion of some explicit, unsimulated sex also makes the movie feel provocative without doing much to serve the story. Gandu is an extremely promising debut feature, but, like the movie's protagonist, Q's raw ambition is more impressive than the message.
The artwork for Gandu plays up a minor character from the movie in addition to Gandu. I guess sex sells, but you'd think they would've allowed the guy to be front and center on the artwork for his own movie. The disc comes packed in a transparent Amaray case with yet another snap from that scene showing through on the inside, and a 12-page booklet with an essay by film critic Travis Crawford, and an interview between Q and Crawford conducted exclusively for the DVD release (in lieu of a commentary track, which proved to be too hard to schedule).
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Gandu's mostly black-and-white, high definition photography is wonderfully rendered on this DVD. Fine detail is excellent, and any contrast tweaking appears to be fully intentional. Sometimes the photography is a little rough around the edges, but that appears to be inherent to the source. When the film briefly jumps to color, Q again intentionally jacks up the contrast to emphasize the adrenaline rush of the moment. Only two minor quibbles affect the picture: reds could be a bit more stable when they appear on the black-and-white footage, and blacks do crush sometimes, obliterating details in people's hair.
A 2.0 Bengali stereo track is a little on the underwhelming side for a movie bursting with musical energy, but it's almost certainly tied to the movie's independent roots, so it can be overlooked. The mix is a little noisy, with vocals occasionally calling for more separation from the background, and one wishes for more surround activity (during the drug trip sequence, for instance), but the track gets the job done, delivering the music and dialogue with enough fidelity to enjoy the movie. A note about the subtitles: I often complain about "burned-in" subtitles, but that's when it has to do with the master provided to the DVD studio. In the case of Gandu, the subtitles are extremely stylized, appearing on screen in different places, different sizes, different colors, all to emphasize the emotional impact of the film. Given that this was an artistic choice, I have no complaints about the captions.
The primary attraction is a featurette called "Behind-the-Scenes" (33:48), a nice overview of the production. Clips of Q speaking at one of the film's screenings are interspersed with cast and crew interviews, B-roll, and other behind-the-scenes footage, covering topics such as the budget, the casting, sex scenes, music, and more. Directed very much in the style of the film, anyone who likes the movie should enjoy this clip, which is a bit more informative and open than the kinds of featurettes you see on studio DVDs.
A bunch of shorter clips round out the package: A music video (3:22) of one of the rap songs from the movie, a trailer for Escape, a documentary on the band Gandu Circus, a short but energetic promotional featurette about the film's arrival in "Berlin" (6:41), a hybrid live performance / music video of Gandu Circus called "WTFRV" (10:42), and finally a promo for Gandu Circus (1:40).
An original trailer for Gandu is also included.
Well worth a rental, Gandu is an impressive exercise in technique and style. The characters and story didn't do as much for me, but this wild rap musical still has plenty going on to keep the viewer engaged.
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