Mumbai Musings Day 5: The thematic similarities in BlacKkKlansman and Bhonsle
The columnist writes about his experiences of Day 5 at the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival
Life, sometime, is truly stranger than fiction. How else do you explain that two films I picked out of a hundred on Tuesday turned out to be about the same theme? The films — Spike Lee’s terrific biopic, BlacKkKlansman, and Devashish Makhija’s deeply affecting Bhonsle — are both about supremacist groups looking to intimidate immigrants and trigger their departure. The former is about the infamous Ku Klux Klan seeking to popularise its white supremacist agenda, while the latter is about a Maharashtrian right-wing extremist group looking to tackle what it views to be the menace of Bihari immigrants. For two films about a common evil, it’s fascinating how different they are in treatment. Spike Lee’s film is more conventionally entertaining — with hilarious one-liners and explosive set-pieces (literally) — while Devashish’s Bhonsle is a slow-grinding drama. The latter is more concerned with imbuing its universe with verisimilitude — hence, the repetitive shots which indicate the dull repetition of events in the eponymous protagonist’s life. The film, set in the backdrop of Vinayaka Chathurthi, has other subtexts too, including the culpability of religion.
You could well have understood if the treatment of both films were in stark contrast, given how BlacKkKlansman is based on a real story, while Bhonsle is fiction. I suppose it helps Spike Lee that the real story on which his film is based — of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department — has the sort of suspense you would expect to see only in the best of thrillers. Bhonsle’s is deliberately created to give you the sense of reality being reproduced. The director said as much, speaking after the screening, when he shared that the technical aspects of the film — chiefly the cinematography — were all aimed at achieving this. This is why he, along with his team, developed back stories, replete with last names and even details of genealogy, for even background actors who had no lines. “I learned this from a filmmaker who I’m not a big admirer of: James Cameron,” he revealed, making a reference to how the Hollywood director had created back stories for more than 150 background characters in Titanic. “I’m not sure it was necessary for Bhonsle, but if the film felt authentic, I’d think all our work was justified.”
It’s alarming how relevant the issues discussed in both films are. BlacKkKlansman’s story of an African-American cop in the 1970s taking on a chapter of Ku Klux Klan, takes on new meaning, when you consider that the institution’s membership is recorded to have undergone a steep increase during the last two years. The film even has a clip of Donald Trump’s speech that doesn’t exactly show him in the best of light. Bhonsle, meanwhile, is about the unspeakable evil unleashed by those, armed with the conviction that god is on their side. The film has a number of shots of incomplete or broken Vinayaka statues, which no doubt are metaphors. The last shot — of a Vinayaka statue being washed away — is a poem by itself.