'Bhonsle': Film Review | Mumbai 2018

'Bhonsle' Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival
A beautifully detailed portrait of a quiet hero.

The clash between local Maharashtra fanatics and migrant Biharis in Mumbai forms the incendiary backdrop to a retired cop story starring Manoj Bajpayee.

Bhonsle is the name of the silent hero, an Indian cop played by Manoj Bajpayee, who is forcibly retired in the first scene of the film and who petitions, with pitiful dignity, for an extension of duty over the next two hours. If this sounds like a weepy, over-long social drama, director Devashish Makhija’s (Oonga, Ajji) delicately directed third feature transcends much (if not all) of its maudlin side in the closely observed portrait of a man who has lost his purpose in life, which should win kudos for star Bajpayee. The film’s anguished mood teetering on the edge of violence spells further journeys through film festival territory after its Busan bow and Indian premiere at Mumbai in the India Story sidebar.

Though the film builds tension well as it goes along, its extremely slow first half hour is punishing. This is the intro to Ganpat Bhonsle (Bajpayee), a zipped-lip type who has just been retired from the police force. Carefully packing away his uniform and donning civilian clothes and a matching white cap, he retreats into his impoverished rooms and keeps to himself, a prickly misanthrope who is laughed at and shunned by his neighbors. While much of this opening section drags badly, it does have one highlight: a mysterious dream sequence in which Bhonsle goes through his usual daily routines as his face, body, hair and thick mustache age and go gray. Given the hopelessness of his retirement situation, it may be more a death wish than anything else.

The story is very specifically set in the well-named Churchill Chawl, a sprawling working-class residential building constructed around a big courtyard that is a world unto itself. A sign of the times is that it is inhabited by a mixture of native-born Marathis from the Mumbai region and Biharis who have migrated from northeast India in search of work.

A certain political party is fomenting ethnic pride among Marathis as a voting gambit, and local TV stations take their cue and accuse the Biharis of everything from stealing jobs to the water shortage. In the chawl, hothead Vilas (Santosh Juvekar) has gone several steps further in stirring up hatred and violence against his Bihari neighbors, often using his fists. In answer to him, another dim-witted character rallies young Bihari boys to slop black paint on the local library, a Marathi stronghold. The face-off continues with its perverse logic while Bhonsle, a Marathi who still has an aura of authority due to his former job, glares silently and refuses to take sides.

In the midst of the mounting tension, he gets a visit from his new next-door neighbors, Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her small brother Lalu (Virat Vaibhav). As a nurse in a hospital, Sita generously but delicately helps Bhonsle over a health issue, and he, in turn, gets Lalu out of a scrape. There’s no hint of romance in their relationship, just mutual protection and respect.

All of Makhija’s films are shot through with outrage at the suffering of ordinary people while the official state looks the other way. Just like the grandmother in Ajji, at the end of the story Bhonsle steps in as a private vigilante to obtain the crude justice that he obviously believes will be denied to an abused woman. This makes for a disturbing ending that seems to condone taking justice in one’s own hands, while cutting off other avenues of help for victims of violence.

Bajpayee, whose wide-ranging career has included acclaimed performances in films like Aligarh and Gangs of Wasseypur, is transformed in the role of the elderly officer of the law. Cast aside and beaten at the start of the film, his hermit retiree emerges as a quiet-spoken hero who opposes the racist hate-mongering around him with cool disdain. Supporting performances are highly convincing, too, particularly that of Juvekar in the role of the mad dog Vilas.

Jigmet Wangchuk’s exceptionally sensitive cinematography hits the mark time and again, filling in the shadowy details of Bhonsle’s world which is lovingly detailed in the production design by Shamim Khan and Sikandar Ahmad. Mangesh Dhakde’s sad theme song reinforces the idea that there can be no escape from implacable destiny. The weak link is the plodding pace that, apparently in an attempt to mimic Bhonsle’s inert lifestyle, feels like an old clock winding down. (There is actually a scene of two characters watching their paint job dry.)

Production companies: Manoj Bajpayee Productions, Golden Ratio Films, Promodome Motion Pictures
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Santosh Juvekar, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, Virat Vaibhav, Abhishek Banerjee, Shirkant Mohan Yadav, Chittaranjan Giri
Director: Devashish Makhija
Screenwriters: Mirat Trivedi, Devashish Makhija, Sharanya Rajgopal
Producers: Shabana Raza Bajpayee, Sandiip Kapur, Piiyush Singh, Saurabh Gupta, Abhayanand Singh
Executive producers: Shiva Dawar, Yash Verma
Director of photography: Jigmet Wangchuk
Production designers: Shamim Khan, Sikandar Ahmad
Costume designer: Sachim Lovalekar
Editor: Shweta Venkat Mathew
Music: Mangesh Dhakde
Venue: MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (India Story)
132 minutes