Devasish Makhija was born in Kolkata and studied economics at St. Xavier’s College before embarking on a career in advertising. His first film work was as an assistant on Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, and as writer for the director’s Doga. He is also a published author. His films include Absent (2016), Taandav (2016) and Ajji (2017).
On the occasion of his latest film, Bhonsle, having its world premiere at Busan International Film Festival, we speak with him about the film and the festival, Manoj Bajpayee, his future projects and many other topics.
Once more, a film of yours premiered in Busan. How do you feel about that and how do you think BIFF has shaped your career?
I always saw my films as ‘Indian’ before Busan BIFF happened to me last year with ‘Ajji’. ‘Ajji’ was celebrated as an ‘Asian’ film more than an Indian one, and this opened me up to the contemporary cinema, politics and preoccupations of the continent. And I realised that from Bangladesh to Indonesia to South Korea and Sri Lanka some of the demons we are battling are the same. Gender. Post-colonialism. Fascism. Religious discord. Uneven development. Economic inequality.
It was one of my biggest epiphanies last year – to realise that ‘Ajji’ was being seen as an ‘Asian’ film first, and then an Indian film. I don’t expect the same thing to happen with ‘Bhonsle’. But the shared concerns of Asian countries is something I’ve been thinking about. And this might shape my future films.
In what ways do you think you have changed (improved) since Ajji, and how have these changes been implemented in the film?
I’m not sure how to answer this question. I don’t see Bhonsle as an improvement on Ajji. These two are vastly different films. Interestingly, we (my cowriter Mirat Trivedi and I) had written Bhonsle years before Ajji. It only finally got made now. But there were lessons learnt on Ajji that helped make Bhonsle the film it is. For years I have been striving to arrive at a very free flowing camera that increasingly allows the actors to inhabit the space and the frame as freely as they want. I tried this first in my short film ‘Agli Baar’ (And then they came for me), and in my next short film too – ‘Taandav’ (the short that paved the way for ‘Bhonsle’).
In Ajji, I did strive to allow the actors and performances and the characters to dictate the motion of the camera and the peripheries of the frames. But since we were extremely tight on resources and time, I wasn’t always successful in freeing up the camera as much as I would have liked to. With Bhonsle, I pushed these boundaries as far as I could. We scheduled and prepped and workshopped for the film in a way that would enable Jigmet Wangchuk (the DOP) and me to allow the characters to dictate the extent and pace of the camera’s movement. Here I must mention my DOP’s fearlessness in allowing this, and his surrender to this prerogative. I hope to keep pushing the boundaries in this regard in future films as well.
I felt that Bhonsle is a more Indian film than Ajji, meaning that its themes and settings are not so easily understood by non-Indians. Why did you decide to take this approach, was it a conscious decision?
I allow a story and its intent to shape how the form and tone will unravel. This particular story probably demanded the textures and information to be more local than Ajji’s.
Ajji being a genre film automatically became more universal in its outreach. Bhonsle is not a genre film by any stretch.
One could also use this simple test to see how local or global a film is – Can it be easily ‘adapted’?
Bhonsle’s plot-devices, its character-pieces, details are so entrenched in the Local as to make it almost impossible to ‘adapt’ to another language or culture. Ajji on the other hand is plum for adaptation. It could as easily be a South Korean film as an Indian one. In India too it could be remade in more than 20 languages and not lose most of its original tone and texture. Bhonsle cannot. In Bhonsle, character motivations come from intensely local customs, regulations, social structures and belief systems. If those are extricated from this film, the film itself might collapse.
Can you give us some more details about the feud between Marathi and Bihari, one of the central themes of the film? What is the role of the authorities in these disputes? Same question about women being raped, a subject that has been gaining much attention during the recent years.
The Marathis are indigenous to the West-Indian state of Maharashtra. The Biharis are indigenous to the East-Indian state of Bihar. Until the recent past, a sizable population of Bihar came to the city of Bombay (the capital of Maharashtra, but also the financial capital of the entire nation) in search of work and income, mostly in the lower strata – eg. daily wage labour. As is natural for most migrant labor, they are cheaper than local labor since they are desperate for work and most times don’t even have a home to go back to at night. They will work long hours (beyond the legal timings of a ‘shift’) for much less and will not complain, since they fear the local systems who see them as a threat to their own survival. This is the major point of tension between the Insiders (in this case the Marathis of Bombay) and the Outsiders (in this case the Bihari immigrant workers).
This is not unique to this city but is a narrative that has played out all over the world, from the Mexicans in white-dominated North America to Bangladeshi immigrants proliferating in Eastern India. The outsider – the migrant – will always be cheaper to hire, will work harder and longer, and will slowly perhaps eat into the local’s share of resources, causing conflict.
But what is unique in this case is that both Biharis and Marathis are citizens of the same country – India. And our constitution states unambiguously that as Indians we can reside and work in any part of the country without hindrance. This makes the discourse of the insider / outsider very complex and multi-layered, since every state in India behaves almost like a mini-nation, yet we are held together by the idea of belonging to one larger nation. Where then do you draw these boundaries? Are you allowed to draw them at all?
Women are not accorded enough respect in almost every strata of this country’s scheme. At the end of the day the authorities are people we – the citizens – choose. So their inability to implement the rule of law or the tenets of our constitution is a reflection of our collective inability (and general apathy) to fight for what is just.
This is one motif that I will be accused of repeating from ‘Ajji’. But I cannot help it. It is not spoken about enough. And when a man needs to hit another man where it hurts most, he generally picks on a woman – it’s been a war strategy since the middle ages, and something we haven’t progressed from much. Indian society might be burning right now with these issues, but in my humble opinion, we are not scalded enough to be able to mobilise enough people to make a change. Until that happens, I feel the compelling need to keep putting these questions up for debate in my films.
Why did you choose to unfold the story during the Ganpati festival?
Religion and politics in India are joined at the hip. In the foreground in ‘Bhonsle’, there is a human drama story. In the backdrop is politics. In its subtext then I needed to bring in religion. So I could explore the fissures and fractures between these three.
Also, I cannot understand the double standards we maintain with religion. On the one hand we preach of love and respect. But it is in the name of religion itself that we pollute – our world, the sea, the sky, our minds, others’ minds, bodies, and souls. Where is the respect in filling the sea with the non-biodegradable waste of the idols of the God we worship, when we are done with the festival? Where is the love in fighting one another for the exclusive right to celebrate the festival? Surely if there is a God, we have repeatedly held that that God does not distinguish between His/Her devotees. Then who are we to do that?
I understand God as a man-made idea. It’s easier to have faith than it is to truly believe. Faith and Hope can keep you going in the difficult times, I admit. But I don’t trust either. I’d rather Believe. And to believe I first need to Question. Only once I am convinced of the answer can I believe.
The Ganpati festival as the second backdrop to this story (and the subtext to Bhonsle’s own journey) gave me the foundation to question Mortality – our own, and that of the Gods we create.
Manoj Bajpayee, inevitably, dominates the film with his presence. How did your cooperation come about (also his role as co-producer) and how did you work with him during the film? What were the differences between directing him and Sushama Deshpande?
‘Bhonsle’ was always a character study in the guise of a plot-driven story of dramatic conflict. We were trying to make two different kinds of films collide in this one film. That must have been what Manoj saw in it too – a chance to immerse himself in a near-emotionless character who the film seeks to explore up close, while also getting to explore dialed-up emotional high and low points. He wasted no time in saying yes to the film more than four years ago when we approached him with the script. Ever since then, he has fought alongside me to make this film happen. He brought all the multiple producers to the table. It was a journey that took four years. We made the viral short film ‘Taandav’ together to prove to the world that we could make a compelling enough film set in this milieu and with these kinds of tones and textures.
Manoj and I have been talking about Bhonsle off and on for a few years. Over that time, we both internalized a lot of things about this character and his world and his responses to things. So when we were finally in production, it was beautiful how we were both on the same page about a lot of things. This doesn’t happen often. Perhaps it is because of the time it took to finally get to making the film. Perhaps it is because we never gave up on the film in all these years. Perhaps it is because we made a short film together that helped solidify a lot of ideas about this character and his motives. Most of all, it is because Manoj believed in Bhonsle so much that it pushed me harder. Sometimes you start questioning what you have created because the rest of the world doesn’t see it like you see it inside your head, and so the world doesn’t care to see it realised. Only you do. And it starts to feel like an arrogant obstinacy – to see this film you want made, realised. But with Manoj on Bhonsle, I didn’t face this doubt even once, because here was an actor of his experience and calibre who every filmmaker in the nation wants to cast, and he is standing beside me telling me – Lets fucking make this film!
The most satisfying thing about both Sushama and Manoj is that they have both done years of theatre. In theatre, the actor is not allowed to become bigger than the role they inhabit. And both these actors know and live that idea. They both submitted to their characters, to the point of being unrecognizable. In Busan, when Sushama went up with me for the QnA most of the audience did not know she was the same woman they had just watched on screen as ‘Ajji’. They assumed she might be one of the producers, until I introduced her. And a collective gasp ran through the room.
With Manoj too, we have shot a panoramic pull-out shot where we placed him in a real crowd of over 40,000 people celebrating the immersion of Ganpati on the last and biggest day of the festival. We were in some panic (not Manoj, mind you, all the rest of us!) about him being recognised. He is a huge name in Bombay. If one person caught him out, there might be a mini stampede. And we couldn’t afford the kind of security that such a situation needs. But his body language and the way he looked and walked through the crowd was so unlike Manoj as you’ve ever seen him, that we did SIX retakes through that maddening crowd, and not a single soul in the crowd recognised him.
These two actors have spoilt me. I would expect this kind of submission to the character from every actor I ever work with from here on.
Both your films feature great villains, with Vilas being an excellent one in ‘Bhonsle’, played by Santosh Juvekar. What do you think makes a great villain, both in terms of writing and acting?
There are no ‘villains’ in the real world. Only victims of circumstance, of systems, of disproportionality in justice, of mindsets passed down over hundreds of years. A person who is not strong enough spiritually or mentally cannot escape that victimhood, and turns into what we call a ‘villain’. And since my films persevere to maintain a certain degree of realism, I try in different ways to texture the so-called ‘villain’ as well, to make them appear real.
You might contest me on what I have just said with respect to Dhavle in ‘Ajji’ (played by Abhishek Banerjee). He does come off as villainously monstrous in how he subjects women to abject misery. But then we see him beaten by his father, and in that scene he turns into a slobbering, helpless, pathetic mess, incapable of protecting himself from a force bigger than himself. That force is a centuries’ old patriarchy. Dhavle is a victim of that. His mind, his heart and his soul operate within the limited boundaries of that misogynistic belief system, because he was born into it, and never got a chance to even consider that there might be an alternative way to live his life.
Similarly with Vilas (played by Santosh Juvekar) in a world where he brutishly demands that ‘outsiders’ be thrown out, he is the ultimate outsider! He doesn’t even own a room. He sleeps in his taxi, and brushes, bathes and shits in a public urinal. The irony is lost on him. He is a victim of a system that encourages us all to seek validation at any cost… to find a pack to hunt with, to belong to. If we don’t ‘belong’ to something we are not allowed an identity. And in the modern urban framework without an identity you do not have any rights.
The government is trying harder and harder to pin on us all unique identification numbers. In this kind of atmosphere, a man without an identity is truly an Outsider. He will not be allowed access to anything. And this makes such a man desperate enough to scheme, to attack, to snarl, to maraud, to rape. Vilas is that man.
In general, how was the casting process like for the film?
I push my casting directors very hard. For the role of Sita over 2-3 years almost 300 women were auditioned. My casting directors on all my films thus far – Abhishek Banerjee (who also plays Rajender in ‘Bhonsle’) and Anmol Ahuja – treat me with extra care. I seek performers who will bring truth and authenticity to the parts they play. I don’t care for marketability. It’s a tough battle, mostly for my producers who often have to build marketing strategies without having safety nets. But its toughest on my casting directors. They need to think out of the box, look in places they may never have looked before, organise auditions in far off cities sometimes. Why all this is a challenge on my films is because there are never enough resources to undertake such procedures. But Abhishek and Anmol make sacrifices for me. On this film they deputed a stellar casting associate – Aasif Khan. Most of the wonderful first time faces you will see in this film were unearthed by him.
Once these folk are cast, I begin a long process of discussions and workshops. On Bhonsle, a young and restless actor Vaibhav RajGupta workshopped the young actors to break them into parts their own personalities were far removed from. We came up with exercises in the real world to build the characters. Eg. we made the little boy who plays Lalu (Virat) steal from a stranger in the middle of the road and make a run for it! We needed him to understand what it feels like to not have enough to eat.
Some part of my film gets made during this process. The only discussions on location then are about how the character navigates the spaces he/she inhabits. Most other work on character is already done by then.
Jigmet Wangchuk’s cinematography is great. Can you give us some details about your collaboration, and particularly the scene in the festival with the panoramic view?
My favourite subject on this film – the brilliant yet diffident Jigmet Wangchuk.
I had chased him to shoot my previous film ‘Ajji’ as well. He doesn’t like working in big cities much. He stays in the mountains. Thanks to his turning down ‘Ajji’, I discovered the brilliant Jishnu Bhattacharya who finally shot ‘Ajji’ – his first feature film. And this time it was thanks to Jishnu (who didn’t have the dates I required) I managed to finally convince Jigmet to come down from the mountains and shoot ‘Bhonsle’.
I had seen some Film School diploma films and videos shot by him on YouTube. I had already ploughed through over two dozen cinematographers for this film. I was not sure of any of them. I needed one particular quality of the camera on this film – I needed it to be so fluidly mobile as to be completely subservient to the movements of the characters. And most cinematographers in this industry have done so much commercial work that they tend to seek ‘beauty’ in every frame, and allow that to become an overriding concern, even subconsciously. I am petrified of that. I do not seek (and am very averse to) immaculately balanced compositions. They contradict the tragic brokenness of my stories and characters, and even the spaces the characters inhabit.
Jigmet is a warrior first, and a DOP second. He signs up for the battle. He immersed himself in what I needed for this film. He started seeing the world of ‘Bhonsle’ like I wanted us to. He is an unbelievable photographer and has a phenomenal framing aesthetic, but he pushed all of that to the background of his psyche I think, to let the action in this film dictate what the camera would do. So much so that we ended up shooting this film in more than half a dozen different formats.
The characters inhabit cramped spaces that are impossible to shoot in, without us being forced to break eye-level. And I did not want awkward low-angles and top-angles. That disorients the viewer, and doesn’t allow us to connect with the person we are watching in the frame. So Jigmet allowed every space to inform which camera we would use. Rangoli Agarwal – his associate – was our champion in this regard. She made a lot happen on this film with nothing at all. We ended up shooting ‘Bhonsle’ not only on an Arri Alexa, but also its Mini version, the C-300, the Sony A7S, the Red Helium, Dragon, the Canon 5D, 60D, and some others that I’ve even lost track of now. And finally, the climax was shot in a 4×4 feet public urinal with Iphones!
None of this fazed Jigmet. For most other DOPs, visual consistency is something they strive for. I don’t require it. And I generally have a hard time convincing a DOP to shed that preoccupation and focus on performance and emotion and narrative prerogatives instead. But Jigmet needed no convincing once he bought into the script and what it is we wanted to achieve with this film.
The panoramic shot you speak of was a particular challenge. We were working with real crowds, we were entirely at their mercy. That one shot was like a docu-fiction shoot. And Manoj looked so real and nondescript in the crowd that in several takes we lost track of him in the crowds. We were planted on a flyover high above him and the people. Pulling focus in this shot was the biggest challenge.
But if you have a warrior beside you when at war, the impossible becomes somewhat achievable.
Can you also give us some details about the location the film was shot? Were there any memorable episodes during the shooting, good or bad?
The chawl (tenement) we finally found (after an exhaustive search) was scheduled to be demolished sometime soon. Most such chawls have made way for tall buildings in the last couple of decades. I needed a world that didn’t commit to a specific time. I needed a natural sense of decay and decomposition. I needed Bhonsle’s home to be able to transfer its stench to the viewer. Yet we did not have the resources to create all of this. This particular chawl had everything the film needed. Since it was going in for redevelopment within the next year, its residents had not bothered to maintain it too well. This was perfect! It even had as many rats as I needed! It was only once we had found this chawl that the film finally seemed like it would be a reality after all.
Now there were dozens of families living in the rooms in this place. We had merely occupied a couple of rooms – one for Bhonsle’s home, and the other for Sita’s. But a film crew often ends up sprawling all over the available space, turning real spaces into extensive film sets. By the second week of shoot it was an interesting cohabitation – between our crew and the residents, who went about their daily lives navigating our cables, cutter stands, lighting wires, apparatus and endless trunks of shoot material. One day we shot a sequence of Ganpati celebrations inside the chawl. Always on the lookout for ways to infuse the frame with more and more realism, we decided to drop the extras and get the residents themselves into the frame. We asked them all to join in the celebrations. Never the kind to say No to a festival party, most of them dropped what they were doing and gathered in the courtyard to dance and scream to the rhythm of the drums.
What this gave us was a sequence that (hopefully) doesn’t at all seem like it was manufactured for a fiction feature. Jigmet’s unharnessed camera-work allowed the scene to unravel in a way that I hadn’t imagined. This was one of those days I almost forgot to call ‘Cut!’ because I almost forgot we were shooting a film. For a few minutes it felt like we were documenting real life.
What are your plans for the future?
Currently my unfinished young adult fiction novel. It’s a treatise on the skewed sense of ‘development’ in modern India. It’s about a little tribal boy whoσε village is being eyed for bauxite mining. And his coming-of-age set against the backdrop of landgrab, political opportunism, militant rebellion and the destruction of nature. It ιs time I took these questions to young minds as well. They are the future. And I feel scared and sorry for them, for the world they will inherit from us. We – the post-40 generation – are a cynical lot. We’ll find a way to survive and justify the apocalyptic hell we are quickly bringing upon us. But the youth – I fear for them. And wonder why we are bringing more souls into this brutal world.
Through this book I want to speak to them.
There are many other film screenplays ready and raring to go. But finding support and backing for them is always near-impossible. Increasingly no one wants to hear the truth. More and more we seek life affirmation from our films – since the world itself is so bleak. Most of my stories provide no false succour. So I always have a very hard time finding finance or support. I’ll restart that fight soon. Let’s see where I land up next. J