Director Devashish Makhija subtly touches upon the insider-outsider issue in Maharashtra
Rating: 3.5 / 5
A multi-racial, linguistic country offers diversity, but you’d be living in a fool’s paradise to believe that most Indians rise above regional identities to unite as one. Different languages, different cultures, identity clashes are bound to happen especially in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai.
The ugly politics of regionalism weakens a society. In the state of Maharashtra, a certain political party had built its identity on the back of a strong ‘Maharashtra for Marathi Manoos’ (Marathi people] ideology. In the 70s, the party objected to the presence of Tamils. Later even the prosperous Gujarati community were targeted. In the 90s, the party’s supremo took a hard stance against the ever-rising influx of migrant labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The migrants were targeted physically too. But such divisive politics also seeped into educational institutes and employment sector [government jobs]. After briefly enjoying power in the late 90s, the people of Maharashtra dumped such politics and elected secular parties who ruled for a decade and half.
In 2019, a miracle happened when the same party left its traditional ally and joined hands with fierce rivals to form a collation government. The cries of Marathi Manoos were seldom heard. With time, the particular party changed its ideology- well, at least publicly. In 2006, a division in their ranks saw a family member floating his own political party. The outspoken leader continued with the Marathi Manoos ideology. But given how it is reduced to a footnote in the Maharashtra political scenario, the new party hasn’t found much takers for its politics of hate.
It came as a pleasant surprise when the same leader felt enraged at the death of Bihar-born Sushant Singh Rajput. That wasn’t all. He issued a threat to Bollywood legacy studios, urging aggrieved outsiders to report to him if nepotism denied them a level-playing field. Phew, how times can change.
In 2020, Kolkata-born Devashish Makhija has subtly touched upon the insider- outsider issue in his slow-burn drama Bhonsle. The Makhijas trace their origins to the North, Hindu Punjabis who with time have migrated to other parts of the country. Devashish Makhija has earlier directed the critically acclaimed crime drama Ajji .
Makhija’s Bhonsle  subtly condemns divisive politics and quietly bats for inclusiveness. We say quietly, because there’s no torchbearer of pluralism here. Makhija makes his point through the ordeal of his principal characters. There’s Ganpath Bhonsle [Manoj Bajpayee] the reticent, despondent retired Marathi cop hoping that his services can be extended. Sita [Ipshita Chakraborty Singh], a Bihari migrant nurse and her young brother Lalu [ Virat Vaibhav]. Sita and Lalu have moved into the Mumbai one-storey chawl recently having Bhonsle as their neighbour. Vilas [Santosh Juvekar] is a hot-headed Marathi goon who is hell bent on carrying out a purge in the locality that is inhabited by Bihari migrants and the local Marathis.
While Vilas has a purge in mind, but Bhonsle has no desire to be the torchbearer of secularism. In fact, the man seems least bothered about his own existence or by any life form around him. However, he develops a certain respect for his neighbours for the kindness they bestowed upon him. Despite fangs of fascism lurking around Churchill Chawl, most residents don’t fall prey to the politics of hate. Not that they care about having unity in diversity, but frankly speaking, all they care for is their daily bread and butter. This aspect of Mumbaikars came to being in the 90s, after most residents were tired of rioting, terrorism and caste politics.
The divisions still exist but Mumbai is now perceived to be a more tolerant city. Given the hard lives that they live, earning bread and butter is the sole aim of most Mumbaikars.
Manoj Bajpayee, a Bihari steps into the shoes of a Maharashtrian cop. Remember, Bajpayee became a household name playing the feisty Marathi goon Bhiku Mhatre in Satya . 22 years on, Bajpayee finds himself playing a lonely. crestfallen, quiet, restrained character. We only get to hear a word from the man after a good 20-25 minutes into the film. And when he speaks, he’s so soft, that it’s hard to really gauge the words. Has retirement hit Bhonsle so hard that it has sucked the life out of him? He seems to be carrying certain mental scars but we never really get into his past. Bajpayee carries the frail, feeble look to him throughout the film. While the Marathi dialect is not quite there, but Bajpayee does well to subdue the internal turmoil within. Bhonsle hits you like a lifeless body. His days are now spent doing the household shores in his tiny chawl and the frequent visit to the police station in the hope of requesting the senior officer Tawde to forward his formal request for extension of his services. You can be slightly critical of the dialect, but this is another emotionally draining, intense show from the versatile actor.
Santosh Juvekar shines as the self-styled warrior of the Marathi Manoos cause. His efforts though yield more frustration than results. He often finds himself coercing the fellow Marathis to join him in his perceived rebellion. The cab driver no longer even amuses his local political master. Don’t assume that the politician has had any change of ideology, but he simply doesn’t deem Vilas fit for the job anymore. Vilas makes you cringe, but Juvekar is brilliant in his act.
Ipshita Chakraborty Singh atones for her sins in Chhapaak  with a kind act in Bhonsle. Sita is a nurse who braves the odd to survive in tough conditions. Sita has her fears, especially worrying for her vulnerable brother Lalu. But she can’t afford to be weak in a not-so-friendly environment. The young woman puts up a stellar show. Child artiste and first-time actor Virat Vaibhav is impeccable in his portrayal of the petrified and vulnerable child still trying to make sense of the new world around him.
Casting director-actor Abhishek Banerjee plays Rajendra who stands up to Vilas’ bigotry. But don’t assume that for any heroism on part of Rajendra. The Bihari migrant and Vilas are perhaps two sides of the same coin. Makhija deserves credit for presenting the two flawed ideologies, but also for harping on the economic depression which perhaps has led to the racial divide. Rajendra and Vilas are mere creations of politics of hate. The film though doesn’t condone any act of violence.
Bhonsle  carries a subtle message of inclusiveness, but the slow burn moves at a yawning pace. The prolonged period of silence with no background score leads to dull moments. Violence is inevitable but it comes a bit too late leading to a claustrophobic middle period. The film could easily have been told inside 90 minutes, than drag it by half hour.
Bhonsle is rich on the technical front with neat production design and deft cinematography that succeeds in bringing out the mood of the scene, creating the necessary grim atmosphere.
Bhonsle has taken a while to get a release. You wonder even with Manoj Bajpayee as the producer, would this film had got a theatrical release if there was no pandemic in 2020? Also, how would have certain political parties taken to it? Bajpayee and Makhija have quietly made their point, now it’s up the viewers to decide what they make of this film. Bhonsle’s silent act certainly earns our respect.
Bhonsle is streaming on SonyLiv.