Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle has smothered me with a bleakness that just refuses to slack off. And I say this in a good way. Desolation cries out loud in the film through the sentient silence of retired cop Ganpat Bhonsle (Manoj Bajpayee), struggling to get a service extension. It echoes in his dark, dank and shabby room in Mumbai’s Churchill chawl; the meagre, repetitive meals of pav and dal; the grubby utensils and the dysfunctional transistor. There is his own resistance towards human contact of any kind, loath as he is to even accept greetings from the new North Indian neighbour Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her brother Lalu (Virat Vaibhav). On the other hand is the inability to fight the continual, ominous visitations of a crow. Bhonsle cuts a grim figure — an island unto himself in the vast sea of humanity — and, along with the dismal space that he inhabits, becomes a persuasive agent of gloom. Makhija’s languorous build up isn’t just about striking a mood or underlining the urban heart of darkness but making it palpable and jump out from the screen to reach out to the viewer.
- Director: Devashish Makhija
- Starring: Manoj Bajpayee, Santosh Juvekar, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, Virat Vaibhav, Abhishek Banerjee
- Storyline: North Indian girl Sita and her brother Lalu befriend Bhonsle, a retired cop next door in Churchill chawl in Mumbai, even as the city bristles with hatred towards the migrants
- Run time: 132 minutes
The other driving force in the film is anger. Pushed deep inside the recesses of Bhonsle’s heart and mind but simmering on in the face of humiliating solicitations he has to make towards his seniors. There are parallel wraths — of a Marathi cab driver Vilas (Santosh Juvekar) and several others like him towards the migrants from North India, supposedly robbing them of their jobs and more, that too in their own home turf. It’s a rage fuelled by local politicians and meets with as angry, but somehow capped and contained, backlash from the migrants, like Rajendra (Abhishek Banerjee). All of these strands span the Ganpati festivities — from the making of the idols to their visarjan.
Irony is that all the three people, seemingly polar opposites of each other, aren’t united merely by the rage they share in common — righteous in one, entitled in another and retaliatory when it comes to the third. They also partake in a collective reality — of being marginalised, dispossessed and tormented in their own unique way. At the receiving end of the power dynamics themselves, they perpetuate it further to the weaker ones. The intense crescendo of brutality towards the end, however, left me feeling both devastated as well as a trifle troubled in how it seeks violence as a tool for collective catharsis and specially with an intelligent, bright woman forced to be at the receiving end of the worst.
But these quibbles apart, though Bhonsle might be set in another time and deals with hatred of a specific kind, it feels prescient for the here and the now because hate hasn’t quite died amongst us. The emotion has just shifted shape to become even more multi-faceted and demonic. And the insider-outsider debate at the film’s heart couldn’t have struck a more ironical note when a vast number of the migrants in Mumbai have emigrated back home even as the city waits for them to return for its own selfish needs and necessities.
Makhija harnesses a competent set of actors to great effect, be it Juvekar, Chakraborty Singh or Banerjee. Bajpayee is astounding in his internalisation of Bhonsle and acts with not just his face but by deploying his whole body — from his sullen, disinterested look to the weighed down, drooping shoulders to the unsure gait and misanthropic ways. From being a mute witness of misdemeanours to the bearer of a boundless personal tragedy to a ferocious moral force — he conveys it all in a measured manner. Virat Vaibhav is wonderfully vulnerable as Lalu, the reluctant offender with a heightened awareness of his guilt. He and Bajpayee together are the keepers of the sanctity of the chawl’s vachanalaya (public reading room) and the film’s conscience at large.
Bhonsle premiered at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival and also played the same year at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and Dharamshala International Film Festival. It dropped on June 26 on Sony Liv and is currently streaming there.