Devashish Makhija’s third feature Bhonsle (2020), opens with highly contrasting images; as the Ganesh Chaturthi idols are being decked up in finery, the protagonist, who is in his sixties, Bhonsle (Manoj Bajpayee), methodically and neatly removes layers and items of his work uniform, as he no longer has his job of a police officer. This striking juxtaposed image-set foreshadows or heralds the central preoccupation of the ‘Othering’ which the film is intent and keen on investigating, albeit in a different vein: the Other is invariably pushed to suffering at the expense of one’s betterment.
We are introduced to the spaces Bhonsle inhabits: a drab, grimy room, in a Mumbai chawl. We follow him as he goes through the motions and grind of the day: lighting incense sticks at the feet of the idol, cooking, washing and his walks in the neighborhood. This efficiently outlines the repetitive nature of his routine. In a masterfully done, poignant dream sequence, we are allowed a glimpse of an aged Bhonsle; his energies, and quickness have frittered away. His transistor is bandaged due to repeated repair, and he tries blowing the police duty whistle, which no longer has any shrill ring.
Bhonsle’s scratchy, shoddy transistor intermittently alternates between blaring out devotional lyrics and the municipality news. It drones on about the limited water supply of the municipality, cut by extreme declamatory shouts emanating from the courtyard, where hate against Bihari migrants is regularly spewed out. Bhonsle amps the volume of the religious song to drown out the intrusive vitriol. This establishes how unwilling he is in taking any nonsense that might muddle his thoughts and bent of mind, which is staunch and steadfast in its beliefs and conditioning. He’s sequestered in his private world, chary of letting people in past the threshold. A crow alights on his window sill, offering bearable transient company. He doesn’t care for what his sneering neighbors have to say about his ways and habits; he quietly observes, listens and walks past.
Into the chawl is an inserted element of the Maratha Morcha Party, represented through Vilas Damle (SantoshJuvekar), who uses strong arm tactics to impress on the residents the pernicious, isolating notion that all jobs, houses and everything in the city rightfully belong to Marathis. Bullying and intimidation are espoused. There are new North Indians who move into the chawl-woman, Sita Prasad (Ipshita Chakraborty) and her brother, Lallu (Virat Vaibhav). Provoked by Vilas insisting on Ganpati being the festival of only the Marathis, a bunch of Biharis led by Rajendra (Abhisek Banerjee in a cameo) also embark on a separate project of organizing an exclusive-for-Bihari festival. The repercussions are inevitably hostile and incendiary. As Vilas comes to know this plan and hurls slurs at Rajendra and assaults him, the camera assumes a frantic, relentless energy, wildly spinning around, mirroring Rajendra’s desperate want of escape from his brutally merciless circumstances.
The magic and brilliance of Makhija’s vision and voice is that he has an equal understanding for all sides and facets of an argument. We see both Biharis and Marathis trying to induct and draw people into their fold and their exclusionary programmes. The seeming victim, Rajendra, is opportunistic as well and scheming because he cannot envisage a soft way of breaching the norm; he proselytizes kids under the pretext and guise of friendship. He coerces them to do things against their personal will, for the sake of the Bihari brigade’s agenda. His anger arises from essential wrongs, like the unavailability of any Hindi newspaper in the neighborhood despite Biharis praying for it. We see those victimized by and subjected to extreme hate being interrogated for daring not to comply and toe in with the norm of injustice, and how the other anguished members of the community turn their choice of staying silent and unresponsive into a matter of dignity and shame. Personal volition is being disregarded.
The subtle melancholy in the gaze on Bhonsle is generously extended to Vilas. He does some monstrously vile things which might easily render an apathetic subject but Makhija gives you a peek into the motivations behind his decisions (but not justifying them), his psyche and that particular emotional place his reprehensible actions stem from. Beneath the aggressive zest of his assertions, we sense his desperate, keening, flailing helplessness in his struggle to be noticed, taken seriously and given some traction and mileage by his superior, Bhau, whom he exhorts to entrust bigger responsibilities. The enormity of pressure to deliver on the assigned task of winning over the chawl residents to his cause besets him. He solicits help and guidance from Bhonsle, whom he calls “Marathi warrior”, but Bhonsle swiftly reminds him that he is overstepping, and asking for the impossible.
The world Makhija creates is unremittingly bleak. The forlorn condition is intransigent and the violence implicit in extremist exclusionary politics get more underline and explodes in few harrowing scenes in the final passages of the film. Hope and empathy are in short supply; the only touch of tenderness, decency and kindness come through in the relationship that develops among Bhonsle, Sita and Lallu. They become sanctuaries and havens of care for each other, in the limited time they get, which is depicted with assured delicacy by Makhija.
Makhija is a perceptive storyteller, sharply aware of the geography and places he summons and portrays in his films, never compromising on authenticity. He skillfully transmits on screen the disorienting cacophony and noise of the city, of the Chaturthi, and how it seems to wear down certain inhabitants like Bhonsle and how it energizes and exhilarates the majority. The all pervasive discombobulating noise seems to swallow the people. Makhija also lovingly accommodates animals-stray dogs nurtured by Lallu, cats sashaying past Bhonsle or Vilas, and rats scurrying restlessly around. We get one stunning sequence in which Bhonsle disappears, speck like, into the vast sea of people, accentuated by MangeshDhakde’s excellent score. The plangent score, dipped in regret, also foreshadows and anticipates the forthcoming horrors, like on a certain night. Shweta Venkat and Mathew’s edit with deliberate indulgence in few scenes and some quick, smart cuts, in sync with the scene demands.
The production design by Shamim Khan and Sikander Ahmed minutely renders the grungy, shabby interiors of Bhonsle’s room, the courtyard with a spilling gutter, and that handsomely mounted immersion crowd sequence. It sensitively highlights the monotonous disrepair and decrepitude of Bhonsle’s microcosmic spaces. Jigmet Wangchuk’s cinematography is richly evocative in its yellow, shadowy textures, with one highlight being a sequence where Bhonsle sits in front of a massive idol, bathed in a gentle blue glow. The screenplay by Mirat Trivedi, Sharanya Rajgopal and Makhija try tapping into the simmering insider-outsider debate, the fomenting of vicious animosity by hard line fanatics, and explores the body politics, and the ways the powerful prey on those beneath them in the ladder of class or caste or any narrow denomination.
The script treads the power dynamics carefully, but the plotting tends to become listless, repetitive and unadventurous, shirking audacious nuance, and resorting to how the non-native women are sexually oppressed by the same people who refer to them by various expletives. Therefore, the film is most persistently persuasive when it is viewed as a character study; the blend of character study and social document/portrait isn’t exactly seamless or convincing.
But these are minor hiccups in a largely powerful, impactful film that is propelled by magnificent performances. Santosh Juvekar has a tough task. He manages not to come across a outright villain, but a man wanting to be given a chance, a break and a modicum of attention and respect, that provokes and engenders in him a mistakenly manifested recourse to nasty deeds which might enable him (so he thinks) in being noticed. Ipshita Chakraborty’s Sita doesn’t get an arc or much space but she is effective in her scenes. Watch her especially in the scene where her brother confesses a wrongdoing to her, and she, thoroughly disconcerted, quietly weighs the situation, ponders on what course of action to take, and finally decides to side with honesty and transparency. With subtlest of expression and minimal dialogue, Ipshita is stunning throughout the film. Virat Vaibhav, as Lallu, has an understated naïve charm to him, and the relationship among Bhonsle, Sita and Lallu, despite being spare in its depiction, is etched with affection and care.
Towering above them all is Manoj Bajpayee, in a performance mostly reliant on gestures, and delicate shifts in vocal register. He has perfected and mastered the art of engaging passivity. His performance is a singular dramatic (ironic because it eschews any dramatic means or pitch) inversion of the decades of showy, overbearing Hindi film acting. He uses his entire physicality, from his shoulders to his gait and the mild cough he employs when Bhonsle confronts Vilas and holds the latter accountable. Bhonsle’s demeanor and attitude might be mistaken for a stoic, entitled indifference, but on a closer look, he is not inured to the ugly ways of the world or the rotten hearts of men; he’s wizened and wary, and cuts a stolid figure for all people in distress. Age hasn’t mellowed his sense of ethics and values. He stands up for what is right and true, even as everyone around him chooses to stay unmoved by the supremacist violence and are hesitant to protest against it. Underneath his apparent misanthropic inclinations, he harbors an essential empathy and kindness for anyone who deserves respectful treatment sans myopic prejudice. Bajpayee marvelously internalizes Bhonsle and his performance has a mesmeric quietude. The restrained approach hides a formidable essence.
The parallels between Bhonsle and Vilas that of being in a limbo, waiting for an opportunity, appear too in your face. Also one wishes Abhisek Banerjee’s Rajendra had more to do. Yet, Bhonsle is a timely rejoinder to a world and a nation torn apart by the corrosive politics, rhetoric and miasma of divisiveness. Makhija speaks passionately and eloquently to the current precarious political moment. The precision and urgency of his statements are devastatingly vital. Prepare to be rattled and deeply shaken. Overall Makhija’s Film is A Powerful Rejoinder to The Current Political Moment.
Bhonsle is currently streaming on Sony Liv.