Big cities can be intimidating, not just emotionally but physically too. It hits you the most when you’re a stranger to the land you set foot in. Mumbai is one such city. If the vastness of the Universe and the insignificance of our planet and the organisms that throng it’s surfaces and depths, in the grand scheme of things were concepts that you read somewhere but failed to quite fathom in their true sense, Mumbai can change that for you in the blink of an eye. Add to this a dash of alienation and a scoop of xenophobia and you have the perfect recipe for a miserable nightmare of an existence where the system doesn’t make any distinction between it’s less fortunate natives and even more unfortunate immigrants. It’s this nightmare that Devashish Makhija invites the viewer to be a part of in his feature Bhonsle.
There are filmmakers who use the latest advancements in audiovisual engineering and technology to bring about an immersive experience for their viewers and then there’s Makhija. He doesn’t need IMAX or 3D to do this. With basic visuals and sound and extraordinary diligence he recreates the life in the ramshackle chawls of Mumbai to such an extent that by the time he’s done, the viewer is a character too, a resident of the very same chawl, mentally. And he does take his sweet time to do this, in a cinematic process that’s organic to the core in execution and writing. There’s almost a rhythm to the frame progression and sequence, albeit melancholic. Makhija reminds you of that teacher from school who repeated that formula again and again, and again till as they say in our part of the world, “thorough”. At the core of the narrative is plight of the average human being, the insignificant lots of this world who are in significant numbers. There are actually no antagonists or protagonists in this film which is ironically eponymously titled after it’s protagonist, only victims. Churchill Chawl is that backyard of every affluent city in every corner of the world where neither dreams nor ambitions thrive and only survival matters. Human beings will always find reasons to divide themselves and when politics is a business where conflict is currency, situations like the one depicted in Bhonsle arise.
Manoj Bajpai in his National Award winning turn transforms himself physically into the frail yet stoic Bhonsle. While there isn’t much scope for emoting here in this role and even fewer spoken lines, Bajpai uses his body, posture and gait to express the thoughts of the character. Santosh Juvekar plays the bad guy you end up feeling sorry for almost, Vilas. It’s his have-nots that drive him and politics is his ticket out of his miserable, marginalised existence. Ipsita Chakraborty is Sita who for no fault of her own, like millions of helpless individuals out there in the real world, finds herself at the receiving end of hatred fuelled by xenophobia spawned by men in high castles and finds a father figure in Bhonsle. Her younger brother Lalu is played by Virat Vaibhav and Makhija uses him to drive the narrative on more occasions than one. Makhija’s surreal quirky sense of humor comes to the fore in the scene where Lalu finds a passed out Bhonsle when the residents of the chawl are engrossed in the Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations. Abhishek Banerjee gets to channel his creepy vibes yet again as Rajendra. These characters may have been placed in a chawl in Mumbai by Makhija but their plight and conflicts resonate beyond the barriers of language and geography. Bhonsle is not cinema, it is the grim reality that’s around us.