Short films have often inspired full-length features. But sometimes, a short film is made so that a feature may come into existence, as is the case with Devashish Makhija’s Taandav and Bhonsle.
In 2016, Makhija directed the 11-minute Taandav, about a head constable played by Manoj Bajpayee who breaks out into a wild dance to deal with the strains of keeping the peace during the annual Ganpati festival in Mumbai. Two years later, Makhija has rolled out Bhonsle, in which Bajpayee plays a head constable once again. The setting is Mumbai, and the Ganpati festival shows up too, but the similarities end there.
The titular character in Makhija’s latest production can be considered a look-alike elderly cousin of the policeman from Taandav. The feature film opens on Ganpat Bhonsle’s last day at work. He reluctantly drags himself out of his office and back to his single room in a chawl. There, he settles into a stultifying routine, which includes cooking for himself and paying regular visits to his superiors in the hope that he will get an extension.
Bhonsle’s retirement is interrupted by external events. A Maharashtrian taxi driver, Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), is incensed at the attempts of the Bihari chawl dwellers to host a Ganpati idol. New neighbours, also from Bihar, get embroiled in the toxic brew that Vilas stirs up, forcing Bhonsle out of his stupor.
Taandav would not have existed if Bhonsle had been made right after it was originally written in 2011. “We made Taandav because Bhonsle wasn’t getting made,” Makhija told Scroll.in. “I wanted to show the world that a film about a havaldar could be interesting. Everything else is different, and the mood and tone have absolutely nothing to do with the short film. I just wanted to prove that we could have something in that milieu and background.”
Makhija’s third feature after Oonga (2013) and Ajji (2017) will be premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (October 4-13). Bhonsle will also be screened in the non-competitive India Story section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1). Ajji, a vigilante drama about an elderly woman who avenges her granddaughter’s rape, was also premiered at Busan in 2017.
Makhija finally completed the script for Bhonsle in 2015, and the film looked as though it would finally get made. “Three or four producers were reached, but it fell apart,” Makjiha recalled. “Producers get scared of worlds that are dystopian, characters that are bleak, and films that don’t end on life affirmation. They get excited by these things in the beginning, but after a few months, the same characters start scaring them.”
It was Bajpayee who suggested to Makhija that they collaborate on a short film to prove that they could carry off the idea. Bajpayee had leapt at the concept behind Bhonsle, Makhija recalled. “He wanted to come in as a co-producer and enable the film, and he has stayed true to that for four-and-a-half years.”
Bhonsle is largely driven by Bajpayee’s taciturn performance, which includes 22 lines of minimal dialogue and depends largely on facial expression, gestures, and bodily movements. The idea was to create an anti-social and inaccessible character who gradually earns the audience’s respect. “He isn’t someone you want to root for,” Makhija explained. “I don’t want him to be warm. I wanted the moral complexity to be there. You can hate Vilas, but you can’t love Bhonsle either. He keeps shutting the doors in our faces.”
Some of Bhonsle’s mannerisms were borrowed from Makhija’s father. The 40-year-old filmmaker was born and raised in Kolkata, and he migrated to Mumbai in 2002. “I felt responsible for what happened to my father after I had left Kolkata,” Makhija said. “He became something else, and I borrowed a lot from him for the Bhonsle character.”
Bajpayee’s oft-repeated ability to effortlessly slip under the skin of his characters was especially evident in the sequence in which he walks unrecognised through a massive crowd during the final day of the Ganpati festival. “For the pullout shot on the day of the main Ganpati immersion, we planted Manoj in the middle of 70,000 people,” Makhija recalled. “That was the first day of the shoot. I did six retakes. Nobody recognised him. Once he was in the crowd, it was like Allah malik, anything could have happened. He pulled off a person so removed from himself that people who know him and celebrate him could not recognise him.”
Another key character that emerges through the narrative is Churchill Chawl, which gets divided down the middle by Vilas’s parochialism and threats of violence. The actual location is a chawl in Sewri in south Mumbai, which was found after many months of hunting.
“The chawl was going to be assigned for redevelopment,” Makhija said. “It had just the right amount of bleakness – you walked in and you wanted to kill yourself. It was a dream location, but also expensive, so it was a fight to make it happen.”
The crew shot there in November and December of 2017. Bhonsle’s room belongs to a resident of the Sewri chawl, who lives next door. In this confined space, Bhonsle cooks his meals, caresses his police uniform, and has nightmares about his uncertain future.
The modest space has been imaginatively filmed by cinematographer Jigmet Wangchuk. The aim was to “create a sense of suffocation”, Makhija said. “What happens inside a closed space is that you tend to repeat shots and are forced to break the eye level to do interesting shots,” he added. “I didn’t want to break the eye level, but didn’t want to look at Bhonsle in a normal way either.”
This was achieved by filming the actor from unconventional angles to emphasise how small his house is and how restricted his movements can get. “I call it landscaping the human body – we are sort of abstracting the person and turning him into one of the prop,” Makhija explained. “Jigmet lived in the room for a few days, he was so dedicated. He seeped into the walls during the shoot – we didn’t even know that he was there.”
The film’s larger themes touch on the divide between the Marathi-speaking people of Mumbai and migrants to the metropolis, especially the ones from northern Indian states. Vilas’s sense of alienation fuel his railings against “Biharis” and his actions, including attempting to inveigle himself with a leader from a parochial party (modelled on the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena). Makhija says he drew on his own experiences to dramatise the simmering conflict, which was especially acute in the years when he came up with the film’s plot.
“I am the child of Sindhi immigrants from Pakistan, and I grew up in a Bangladeshi immigrant ghetto in Calcutta,” Makhija said. “When and where do you draw the line – and how far back do you go in history to trace your roots?”
Through Vilas, Makhija has attempted to explore the irony of the character’s politics. “Vilas is actually the most outsider of the lot – he doesn’t belong to the chawl, and sleeps in his taxi,” Makhija said. “Of course, this [debate] is a non-issue now, and between 2011 and now, I have tried to make the film more of a human drama.”