Bhonsle director Devashish Makhija on making films on the marginalised: Never been interested in status quo
As Bhonsle releases on SonyLIV, Devashish Makhija talks about directing Manoj Bajpayee in a feature film, and his relationship with Mumbai as an outsider.
This interview was first taken ahead of the premiere of Bhonsle at the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in 2018.
Devashish Makhija's revenge saga Ajji premiered in India at the 19th Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival. His next film Bhonsle, after traveling the world for months, gets a premiere at the 20th edition of the film festival.
"MAMI has been my favourite festival. Not only my features, but also my shorts like El'ayichi were screened at MAMI. MAMI feels like that home ground. It is an emotional experience to watch the film with people I know, as opposed to some rank strangers at a film festival abroad," says Devashish.
The "rank strangers" have been as kind to his film. Like Bhonsle this year, Ajji was screened at the Busan International Film Festival in 2017. More than the positive reviews, Devashish was pleasantly surprised by several reviewers addressing Ajji as "an Asian film", as opposed to an Indian one. "That is when I started thinking of my film as seen beyond just an Indian film. A lot of the countries in South Asia have a lot of common issues. We all have a colonial past so the struggle to form an identity and hold on to it is similar. This struggle is what is often reflected in the cinema of these countries. This observation is going to shape my films ahead."
Devashish looks at geographical borders through a skeptical lens. His family originated from the Sindh province of Pakistan and he grew up in Kolkata, kilometers away from the West Bengal-Bangladesh border. While he believes the nature of migration in East India, West India and on a global scale is defined by its micro situation, the root of the issue is nationalistic tendencies. "When you create national borders and take patriotic pride in belonging to that nation, and excluding those that were not born there, you are setting up for a migration conflict that you won't be able to navigate easily without bloodshed. How far are you going to trace it back? How far are you going to prove that this line drawn here is the line set in stone? Forty years ago, this line may have been 40 kilometers this side, like in the case of Tibet and Siachen."
Bhonsle is a comment on the issue of migration in Mumbai. It revolves around a retired cop (Manoj Bajpayee) who befriends a North Indian girl and her brother when the local politicians are trying to rid Mumbai of its migrant population. Devashish's training ground in getting acquainted with the fabric of Mumbai population dates back to early 2000s when he was an assistant director in Anurag Kashyap's 2007 crime drama Black Friday.
"I had just moved to Mumbai then. There couldn't have been a better way to get to know the city. Mumbai is quite like New York. Since it's the financial capital, it attracts a lot of migrants from other cities. It is built on fragile grounds, both literally and commercially. It is a product of the blood, sweat and tears of the migrants, not the indigenous people, though a lot of political parties will claim otherwise. Black Friday helped me understand this complexity. Because when the leader of a Maharashtrian political party claims there's only this much water left in the city and the indigenous people have the first right to it, I know it's vote bank politics talking. But then I think what else can a leader in that position say. Just like Black Friday, Bhonsle offers no easy answers. It only throws up more questions," says Devashish.
The seminal film on Mumbai's underworld also allowed Devashish to familiarise himself with how the Mumbai police functions. "I saw the system from the inside out. To see it from an axis point where the system did not work was an eye opener for me. I did not see the cops as heroes. That was already covered in the mainstream news discourse. I saw the police for the things they covered up, they didn't report, the recorded conversations that never made it to the public discourse. But if you make public those 3,000 anonymous tapes, it will create havoc. Governments will fall. These are not easy things. I couldn't see things black and white after that."
Two years after Devashish's critically acclaimed short film Taandav, Manoj Bajpayee dons the khaki yet again in Bhonsle. However, the director clarifies the two characters are not related even distantly, apart from a few broad motifs. In fact, Bhonsle is just a man who happens to be a cop as the narrative starts after he retires in the first scene. Unlike Taandav, Bajpayee does not take his gun out and dance with abandon to the beats of the Nasik Dhol. Here, he is a character as lonely as he was in films like Hansal Mehta's 2015 drama Aligarh and Dipesh Shah's psychological drama Gali Guleiyan from earlier this year. The loneliness only reflects yet another concept integral to the narrative of migration. As a section of the indigenous people are busy shooing migrants away, another section feels isolated and lonely in the absence of those who add more colour to the city.
"The biggest USP of Manoj is that he has this chameleon-like personality. He gains weight, loses weight, forms a hunch - it is this physicality that really worked for me. It's an experiment but I've tried his physicality to convey the emotion. His face is emotive, that is for granted. The camera usually focuses on his face. But in this film, the DoP and I've tried to drift the camera to various parts of his body. There are shots where I've tried to make the audience feel what he's going through by capturing his toes, his fingers and even his ears. We had been discussing the film for the past three or four years. He internalised the character so much that I could use his body as a prop. I took it as a challenge to make every part of his body perform. Manoj enabled that," says Devashish.
He feels the same for Sushma Deshpande, who played the titular character in Ajji. The revenge drama revolved around Ajji seeking retribution for the rape of her granddaughter after the police fails to take action against the perpetrator, the son of a local politician. One point of criticism that Ajji faced was the excessive gory violence. For a man who has also penned Tulika Publishers' bestselling children's books When Ali Became Bajrangbali and Why Paploo Was Perplexed, the violence runs the risk of alienating a large chunk of his readership from watching his films. "I'm not delusional about children watching my films because I don't want them to watch it. The tone of my films demand an 'A' rating. The kind of motives I used in Ajji, they will just go past the children anyway. That's why I lead a very schizophrenic life. I write books for children and make movies for adults," explains Devashish.
Violence is organic to a narrative that has its heart in the marginalised reclaiming their position in society. These are the stories that have always lured the filmmaker in him. "For the longest time, I've not been interested in the stories of the winners, of the status quo, of those who make the rules. There was a period where I was active with Adivasi rights. I was attempting to contribute to the book A People's History of India when I came across A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It addressed something that we all know but often don't talk about. It flips the perspective fed by history books in school and college. They were written by people in power. By the default of not being in power, the marginalised didn't get represented. I've taken it as a mission to represent them in my films. Let's see for how long I sustain."
Bhonsle is streaming on SonyLIV.
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