By Rachit Raj

Winston Churchill once said about India – “India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator.” It is fitting in that sense that director Devashish Makhija sets his recent movie about the fractures of India as a unified country in a chawl community of Mumbai living at ‘Churchill Chawl’. The geographic space of the chawl in Bhonsle becomes a microcosm for an India where sayings like “unity in diversity” feel more farcical than ever.

Starring Manoj Bajpayee as the titular Ganpat Bhonsle, Makhija makes a powerful film that shows how communal hate can drive humans to a place where they can commit barbaric crimes in the name of defending their people. The film is by no means a smooth watch. Makhija, in giving his audience a peek at the dull, monotonous life of Bhonsle, takes a long time to establish his characters and setting. There is hardly any story development in the first hour and the narrative does feel a tad repetitive in its first lap. However, this is an important narrative device. The film purposefully settles us into the monotony of Bhonsle’s life, almost making us as oblivious of the impending violence in Bhonsle as Bhonsle himself. The film remains at the tip of a major outbreak for a significant part of the first hour but Makhija leaves all the plot development for the second half of the film, making us wait like bloodthirsty hawks for things to turn dark.

What helps the audience in getting past the slow first hour is the stellar lead performance by Manoj Bajpayee who sinks his teeth in a role that demanded a silent submission to the world of a wordless man who is inexpressive and yet Bajpayee holds in him all the emotions that the film intends to convey to its audience. He is especially terrific in a dream sequence that shows what Bhonsle’s life could have been if not for the incidents through the film that ensures a departure from his normal.

Makhija here refuses to tell a morally comfortable story of the clash between Maharashtrians and the Bihari immigrants that seem to threaten the control that Marathi people hope to enjoy in their city. Bhonsle addresses the idea of subtlety and sensitivity. It does not tell a simple story of good versus evil but instead intends to work as a commentary on contemporary India. Makhija fills the movie with religious and social symbolism that leave space for ambiguity without tampering with the main conflict of the film, elevating the film from its basic plot.

The movie is predominantly about Bhonsle’s friendship with his Bihari neighbour Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her younger brother Lalu (Virat Vaibhav) and his eventual stand against the hateful political ideology of Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), a local politician trying to buy votes by igniting a Maharashtrian-versus-Bihari narrative. But the best moments of Bhonsle appear in the little details. In that way, Bhonsle and Makhija’s Ajji can be seen together. Both these movies excelled in little details of the story and characters. One such beautiful movement occurs in the film when Bhonsle’s character is lost in a large crowd as the camera moves away from him. This scene, just before the final act of the film, is reflective of just how ordinary Bhonsle is and works perfectly as a juxtaposition to his character arc in the last lap of his story. Bhonsle is no hero, and yet every once in a while, the silent, defeated man rises up as a force against the darkest face of evil.

Bhonsle is a satisfying watch for the details that can be found in every frame of the film. The film meanders a bit and takes it sweet time to find its feet, yet, Makhija fills enough material in his film to keep the audience eager to know what happens next. Thanks to a towering performance by Bajpayee that can easily go unnoticed in the silences of the film, the film remains an engaging watch.  Bhonsle is not the most swiftly paced film and the climax works best when placed against a recurring binary that the film intends to establish, but Makhija’s meticulous direction and his passion to give an essential political conflict a cinematic voice makes this an important cinematic experience.

[The film is now streaming on SonyLiv]