It’s become clear in the last few years that Indian Independent films or ‘Hindies’ – as well as what might be called ‘New Bollywood’ films – still struggle to find the best way to get onto the international film festival circuit and to interest buyers in overseas territories. Mainstream commercial pictures from the larger Indian language cinemas generally have their own overseas distribution systems. My local multiplex regularly shows Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Urdu films alongside Bollywood, but I have much less chance to see the indies. Occasionally one or two pop up in UK festivals and when I spotted Bhonsle in the Glasgow programme, I was determined to get to see it.
Writer-director Devashish Makhija and the film’s star Manoj Bajpayee first made a short film together a few years ago while trying to find the funding to make Bhonsle which now appears as produced by Indie Muviz, although I’m fairly sure the credits suggested that Bajpayee himself had a production input. Makhija’s first two features were both very well received.
The film begins with a long title sequence in which we see the construction and painting/dressing of a clay Ganesha idol for the local celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi – something which formed the centrepiece of Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai Kings (India 2012). In Bhonsle, the preparations are intercut with a sequence in which a police officer gradually strips himself of his uniform and emerges in simple white clothes. We also see a farewell that marks the moment of his retirement from the police force, but we get the sense that his retirement is not something he really wants and he asks for consideration of an extension to his employment. There is clearly meant to be a link between the religious celebration and this man’s retirement. This is a film that generally shows rather than tells and over the next two hours plus we have to work out some things for ourselves. Reading the film requires some knowledge of Indian geography and culture and some of the (limited) commentary on the film from non-Indians seems to get a few things wrong. I’m not sure I understand everything, so please correct me if I’m wrong.
Eventually we realise that the retired police officer is ‘Bhonsle’. In fact he is ‘Ganpati Bhonsle’. Ganpatai is another name for Ganesha. I’m not sure if Bhonsle actually carries this as a family name or whether it is simply a name to link him to Ganesha. Either way, he is the oldest man in the ‘Churchill Chawl’, one of small housing blocks in Mubai, and he is in some ways the respected elder although he now keeps himself much to himself and is gently mocked by some of the younger men. The chawl is not a peaceful place. Mumbai has long been the land of dreams for migrants from across India and now Biharis from North East India are coming to live in some of the cramped rooms. A local hothead Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), a taxi driver, has been recruited by a local politician of a Marathi Nationalist Party to stir up trouble among the Marathi youth (i.e. the local population from Maharashtra). Bhonsle ignores this at first but then discovers he has new neighbours, a Bihari woman Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her young brother Lalu. Bhonsle finds himself, reluctantly at first, standing up for these two against Vilas and the main part of the narrative involves these four characters leading to a chilling climax. All four gibve strong performances and Santosh Juvekar reminded me very much of Nawazuddin Siddiqi in appearance.
The Glasgow programme suggests that this drama is about India’s ‘class structures and racial divides’ and I’ve seen other comments that is about ‘caste differences’. But I think it is simply about prejudice against ‘outsiders’ and something whipped up by India’s current populist politics which in other cases are indeed nationalist/regionalist or religious/communal. Biharis are a sizeable minority in Maharashtra, as are many other groups who have migrated to Mumbai from other parts of India. Sita is a nurse and in terms of social class presumably on a par with Bhonsle.
The first part of the film in particular has a very slow pace. We spend quite a long time watching Bhonsle come to terms with what it is going to be like getting old and decrepit and lonely in his cramped room. At one point we are offered a dream sequence, in effect a series of images of the room falling into decrepitude. The cinematography by Jingmet Wangchuck a graduate from the Film and TV Institute of India in 2011 is one of the important elements of the film’s look alongside the soundtrack by Mangesh Dhakde and editing by Shweta Vengkat (who has worked on several notable ‘Hindies’ such as Newton and Gangs of Wasseypur).
The pacing speeds up for the remainder of the narrative once the interaction with Sita and Lalu begins. I enjoyed the film and I was always engaged. The ending is shocking with a brutal scene brilliantly photographed in an enclosed space. I do wonder though about whether the narrative is stretched out too far. 132 minutes, though not long by Indian standards, could be tightened up a little to attract international buyers. Others disagree I know.
Here is an excellent interview (in English) with the director Devashish Makhija at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in which he explains his personal reasons for making Bhonsle.