Devashish Makhija’s film Bhonsle has bagged two awards- for Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Asian Film Festival at Barcelona, Spain. Manoj Bajpayee has won the Best Actor Award for his work in the film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Devashish Makhija is a relatively little-known name in Indian cinema. Bhonsle, based on a story composed by Devashish Makhija, Sharanya Rajgopal and Mirat Trivedi, is produced by Manoj Bajpeyee and some others so it is a crowd-funded film. The story revolves entirely around Ganpat Bhonsle and opens on the day he is forcibly retired from the police force just when the chawl he lives in is preparing for the annual Ganpati festival. The film closes on the day of Anant Chaturdashi, the final day of the Ganpati immersion.

Bhonsle’s first name is “Ganpat”. In sickness, he is admitted to a nursing home called Siddhivinayak, one of the 108 names of Ganesha, and though we do not see him involved with the chawl Ganpati celebrations, it is not difficult to draw parallels. One interpretation is whether he is a modern metaphor for the elephant God who lives life on his own terms without the least compromise even when he knows he is quite sick but has no control over his circumstances.

Bhonsle is 60, lives alone in a single room inside the chawl, cooks his own simple food initially and later, as his migraine attacks increase, he comes down to the humble pav – the small lump of bread bought from street shops and then, finds it difficult even to eat. He hardly talks and refuses to take sides when the chawl ruffians draw sharp dividing lines between the Biharis and the Maharashtrians and decide not to include the Bihari residents in the chawl festival, something that has never happened in 25 years.

The sub-plot of the Maharastrian-Bihari conflict does not spare the Biharis either. Seeta, a young girl and her kid brother Lalu, from Bihar, move in to a room next door. But Rajendra, the Bihari within the chawl who is badly bashed up by the Maharastrian goon Vilas, takes it upon himself to forcibly shave off the hair of Lalu and also forces him to cover the wall of the chawl library with black paint. He explains that the head shaving is like an initiation into the Bihari “gang” and the boy and his sister are speechless.

Bhonsle’s application for an extension is kept on hold. He goes on chasing the application while his superior keeps him on hold. One day, he decides to approach the officer directly and is made to wait for long hours on a bench outside the station. The scene keeps intercutting this “waiting” with the futile wait of Vilas to meet his political boss who has been keeping him at arm’s length. This futile “waiting” by two different people distanced in terms of age, ideology, education and way of life signify the consistency of the casual ignorance by the powerful of the weak. Both Bhonsle and Vilas are victims of the socio-political environment they live in.

Bhonsle avoids Seeta and Lalu when they introduce themselves because he is a social recluse and he avoids them like the plague and remains a silent observer of the happenings around him.

Makhija’s fine eye for detail enhances both the film and the character of Bhonsle. The film opens with huge Ganesha heads in different stages of being crafted at the hands of the artist who is off-screen. One particular Ganesha has a big hole in place of the trunk while another’s eyes and eyelashes are being touched up and this sculpting of the idol, its being taken away in a crowded procession, the sound and the music and the loud chants puncturing the evening finally culminating in a complete figure of Ganesha disappearing within the waves of the sea function as an imaginative editing strategy.

The same goes for Bhonsle’s room - a large waste bin where the camera closes on Bhonsle washing the darkened pan where he makes tea, Bhonsle washing his clothes, Bhonsle serving himself or trying to repair his ancient transistor, Bhonsle keeping a vessel on the floor to catch the water from a leaking roof, Bhonsle lighting incense sticks at his altar are handled in complete silence with ambient sounds following him in his chores. There is a small surreal scene where we find a white-haired, semi-bald, very old Bhonsle going about his chores absent-mindedly as the camera pans to close in on the cobwebs gathered in the small temple of his room, utensils left unwashed in the sink and so on. It is a pointer to the way Bhonsle’s boring and lonely life will evolve.

When Bhonsle retires in the beginning of the film, there is no farewell party. He slowly removes his shoulder badges, his cap and changes into a white shirt and pyjamas and covers his head with a white Gandhi cap which he keeps wearing for the rest of the film.

Trust Manoj Bajpeyee with his non-hero-like looks to slip under the skin of any character. Bhonsle is no exception. You can feel his suppressed anger at things happening around him but he turns around and walks slowly up the steps and into his room. His silence spreads across the rest of the film and the only loud voice we hear is that of Vilas, the local political goon shouting out false promises of mending the water problem and making the chawl an “Amchi Maharashtra” place.

When Bhonsle’s simmering protest comes out of its quiet shell, that time too, he neither shouts nor talks nor expresses himself through his hands and his body. He reinforces the conviction that he is one of the best actors Hindi cinema has ever produced. The silence is ominous, like a ticking bomb waiting to explode when you least expect it to.

Violence is also expressed through colours – black – used to paint the walls of the ‘library’, yellow to do away with the black paint and red on Bhonsle’s shirt towards the end of the film originally red with “gulaal” (red powder used at festivals) later turned to the red of blood.

Seeta by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh is another amazing performance. She is a nurse in a nearby private hospital who finds herself taking care of Bhonsle when the latter is brought to the nursing home by Lalu and some neighbours who are pulled away from their music and dance and drum beats before going for the immersion.

Every actor in this character-driven story has helped in instilling life into the film including Santosh Juvekar who plays Vilas. The small boys are impressive in their silence. The final feather belongs to the emotional musical score which is hardly there and is marginalised by the silence that defines the film. The brilliant cinematography captures the life of a Mumbai chawl, the taxis and autos lined up outside, the cameos within the chawl bringing the film alive and throbbing from beginning to end.

The celebration of Ganpati festival serves as a prop, a backgrounder and a metaphor because we do not see any detailing of the rituals, the pooja, the and so on. The script keeps it low-key to match the rest of the film where violence is perhaps a strange protagonist because it presents itself mainly through its marginalisation to sound and noise and dialogue. Ganpat Bhonsle may be a modern-day metaphor for Lord Ganesha but he is by no means the “sukhakarta, dukhaharta” (The lord of happiness, the stripper of sorrows) his heavenly namesake is famous for. Perhaps the broken and incomplete heads of the idols define the ‘broken’ life of Bhonsle. Bhonsle cuts through you as if with a sharp knife. It is hard-hitting and incisive. But, thanks to Bhonsle and his neighbours, it is also gentle and fragile.