Bhonsle Movie Review: Manoj Bajpayee is masterful in a deeply moving film
Devashish Makhija’s film looks at hate and empathy in a Mumbai chawl
Early on in Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle, Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), a taxi driver striving for political clout, gets called a ‘bhaiyaa’. It’s the same slur he’s been using to flame anti-Bihari sentiments in a Mumbai chawl. Here, though, the context is revised. He’s being asked to drive a young couple to the swank Phoenix Mall; ‘Bhaiyaa’ is also a term of address, a stand-in for ‘elder brother’ or ‘sir’. Vilas bristles for a second, then accepts the ride. His submission reveals the biting irony of the film — how exclusionary attitudes are reserved for a particular class, and how fickle the concept of ethnic pride really is.
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, Santosh Juvekar, Abhishek Banerjee
Director: Devashish Makhija
Streaming on: SonyLIV
Mumbai’s discordance with migrants has a storied past. The city was built by cheap labour from across the northern and southern states. Yet, over the decades, right-wing groups have violently painted them as outsiders, a threat to Marathi supremacy and progress. Their fierce antipathy was thrown into harsh focus recently, with thousands of migrants being forced to flee in the flushes of Covid-19. Devashish’s film, which was completed in 2017 and is now out on SonyLIV, is a stark account of this long-drawn conflict. It is also, movingly and expressively, a story about empathy, the bonds that grow in the everyday rut of coexistence.
The film opens with Ganpat Bhonsle (Manoj Bajpayee) retiring from his police job. As he slips out of his khaki uniform, the routine is juxtaposed with a Vinayak idol being readied for Ganesh Chaturthi. Later, we see him carry a small statue to his one-room kholi — the one bright spot amid the clutter of cooking utensils and a scratchy radio set. A crow sits outside his window. There are whispers of his retirement, so he stuffs his uniform under the bed. When a new neighbour, Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh), drops by to say hello, Bhonsle is unenthused, perhaps even suspicious of her North Indian name and accent. But when the girl’s younger brother Lalu gets into a scrape, the old retiree starts looking out for him, ignoring his terminal-illness to keep the belligerent Vilas in check.
Devashish’s last film, Ajji, was a dark revenge story against a vicious political class. Bhonsle has the same angst and predilection for violence, though its characters are patiently drawn. We spend long stretches understanding their failures and aspirations. The repetitive close-ups and cutaways reaffirm the mundanity of their lives. Vilas, for all his nativist pride, lives in a taxi. His minor existence is dwarfed by the soaring high-rises of the city.
Bhonsle, likewise, is waiting to be reinstated in the force — he’s been promised an extension but word is yet to arrive. Economic survival, the film points out, is the supreme struggle for these people, simultaneously driving and allaying other forms of conflict. This is reflected in the passivity of the minor characters: fearful, hesitant children getting pinned up with badges, adults pleading to be left out of trouble. It’s telling that Rajendra (Abhishek Banerjee), the underdog leader who takes Lalu under his wing, disappears from sight once his interests are served.
By now, Manoj Bajpayee has established himself as a master of silent illumination. With his sullen eyes and low, faltering voice, he brings out the crumbling despair of Bhonsle. In a white topi and kurta, he walks with his arms clasped behind his back, like a spectator to his own life. The film is constantly trying to drown him out: with drum beats from a Ganpati celebration, with a splendid top shot that loses him in a sea of people. The voices of Lalu and Sita too are muffled in perilous times. This is a city of constant, maddening noise, where rumbles, clamours, hoots, shrieks, and screams combine into a uniform, impenetrable din. Devashish finds moments of repose in his film — Bhonsle and Lalu preparing a mix of paint, Sita fixing a doctor’s appointment in advance — but he does so with an awareness of the madness raging outside.