Bhonsle is a Treatise on the 'Outsider': Devashish Makhija
In conversation with the direction
The first look of Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle was screened at the 71st Cannes last year. The full film was featured at Busan International Film Festival and at MAMI. Makhija is a shocker of a filmmaker who has the gift of taking his audience by both shock and surprise. Though Bhonsle, made in 2018 has not had a theatrical release in India yet, the very young, quite offbeat Makhija loves to talk about his films and Bhonsle is no exception. So, here goes….
What statement are you trying to make through this film?
Bhonsle is a treatise on the ‘outsider’. The one who is made to feel he/she does not belong. Every nation in the world right now is fighting the same demons. Factions in each country – from Syria to America to India – have identified who they think are Outsiders (and hence do not belong) and are targeting them. The basis of difference may be culture, history, religion, caste, language or race. But the manner of violent exclusion seems to be a pattern repeating itself across the world. I am not interested in stories of winners, of the status quo, of those who make the rules, the stories of the winners, of the status quo, of those who make the rules. I've taken it as a personal mission to represent the marginalised in my films. So that if you put my filmography together when I die, hopefully it might seem like a filmic version of a people’s history of India
What made Manoj Bajpayee decide to produce this film?
I approached him with the script way back in 2014 and though I felt I would have a long wait, he got back the very next day. We put our heads together and soon arrived on the same page. Both of us agreed that he could play the part any time over the next 20 years because the character of Bhonsle was sixty, retiring on the very day the film opens. I was not sure about whether I would be able to manage the funds over 20 years. I knew that a film that does not seek to entertain but is intent on moving, questioning the status quo and disturbing the balance would find it very difficult to garner funds. Manoj was the first on board. He told me that no matter what the circumstance and no matter when we make the film he would be co-producer. That belief is what slowly attracted many others to come join the fight.
What made you choose the time-frame from just before Ganpati Pooja to end on Visarjan day at a time when right wing factional Maharashtrians were determined to throw out the Biharis?
Religion and politics in India are joined at the hip. In the foreground in Bhonsle is a human drama story. In the backdrop is politics. In its subtext I needed to bring in religion. So I could explore the fissures and fractures between and among these three. I also cannot understand the double standards we maintain with religion. On the one hand we preach of love and respect. But it is in the name of religion we pollute the sea, the sky, our minds, others’ minds, bodies, and souls. What respect is there in filling the sea with the non-biodegradable waste of the idols of the God we worship, when we are done with the festival? Where is the love in fighting one another for the exclusive right to celebrate the festival? The Ganpati festival as the second backdrop to this story (and the subtext to Bhonsle’s own journey) gave me the foundation to question mortality – our own, and that of the Gods we create.
Like your Ajji, this film is also placed in a low class Mumbai chawl. Having lived a major part of your life in Kolkata, how did you cultivate such a deep insight into the lower class Marathi identity?
I moved to Mumbai in 2003. When I began to research ‘Black Friday’, it became an insightful lesson in knowing the city of Mumbai which I feel, is very much like New York. As Mumbai is the financial capital, it attracts a lot of migrants from other cities. It is built on fragile ground, 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. Just like Black Friday, Bhonsle too offers no easy answers. It only throws up more questions. I search relentlessly for the human motifs that would make the story transcend any very specific local nuance while still holding on to enough details to make the story appear rooted locally.
What kind of homework did the film demand?
‘Bhonsle’s plot-devices, its character-pieces, details are so entrenched in local customs, regulations, social structures and belief systems, as to make it almost impossible to ‘adapt’ to another language or culture. The biggest challenge e was to try and think and feel like a Maharashtrian. As a migrant from the West Bengal, I had the Bihari part covered. But I wanted the film to feel like a balanced mix of both perspectives. My co-writer Mirat and I took time and effort to speak to enough locals – friends as well as strangers – businessmen, academics, cops, civil servants, and people off the streets – to understand the complexities that could constitute the feeling of ‘belonging’. And also that of ‘unbelonging’. Manoj internalised the character so well that I could use his body as my canvas. Every part of his body performs in this film.
Both your feature films Ajji and Bhonsle are targeted at avenging social crimes through humane stories revolving on very marginal personalities. Do you agree?
I want to always raise questions. We don’t question ourselves enough. We do cruel, illegitimate things to others and to our world, and hope that no one going to question us. Through my films I hope to make us all stop dead in our tracks – even if for just a moment – and think about how horrifically self-centred we have all become. I feel that if as a storyteller I don’t fulfill some social responsibility I haven’t earned the right to practice my craft. This is entirely a personal subjective viewpoint. But I hold myself to it as ruthlessly as I possibly can. I believe if we have rights as citizens we also have duties. And raising questions is me doing what I perceive to be my duty as an artist.