In a land where a group of people are increasingly assuming vigilante roles to enforce a kind of supremacy of identity, the eponymous character Bhonsle is a retired member of the law enforcement. For the vigilantes and self-proclaimed guardians of a parochial identity, the law and the police are mere spectres and spectators of the reign of terror. In the grounded reality of Devashish Makhija’s film, Bhonsle’s extrinsic police-officer identity is of little consequence, but it is Bhonsle’s Marathi identity that makes his crusade for reason and revenge confounding for some and comforting for others.
Manoj Bajpayee is Ganpat Bhonsle, a sixty-year-old man with thick-rimmed glasses, a thick salt-and-pepper moustache, dressed perpetually in white clothes, sometimes stained. Bhonsle is a man of few words and with an ever-pensive look. He lives in a dinghy tenement and is flanked by neighbours whose cultural identities are not homogenous. He walks slowly, in a brooding manner and prefers gestures and grunts as replies instead of words. The central thesis of the film is the raging divide between the natives and the migrants prevalent in Maharashtra. As the conflict takes centre-stage, Bhonsle finds himself inadvertently drawn into the tussle. The only problem with his approach is that he attempts to employ reason to deal with a conflict dictated by raw emotion.
There is a Marathi hardliner Vilas, played by Santosh Juvekar, who is a member of a fictional group named Marathi Morcha, which works for the rights of the much-exalted Marathi manus, and aims to protect them from what they feel are devouring advances of the north Indian outsiders — colloquially and pejoratively tagged ‘bhaiya’, as opposed to ‘bhau’. While it is Vilas who lights the flame and fans the fire, it is Bhonsle who calmly tries to counter his reductive and exclusionary actions. We find out that in response to the Marathi rights demagoguery, the north Indians, initially led by Abhishek Banerjee’s Rajender who later just disappears from the scheme of affairs, have also unionized and formed what they call the Uttar Bharatiya Sangh. Instigations and counter-instigations steadily exacerbate the conflict, which ultimately wreaks devastation.
The film is shot entirely on location, with the camera especially interested in meticulously introducing Bhonsle’s dilapidated world. Bhonsle is a lone wolf about whose life and relationships, nothing is known. The director opts for a montage to make the audience acquainted with Bhonsle’s ruinous daily grind. Prolonged sequences are devoted to capturing nothing but Bhonsle slowly braving his age and going about his chores, and his development of a relationship with his next-door north Indian neighbours. Such depiction is characteristic of a slow-burning character-driven film, where the story arc is either secondary to the character arc or is realised through the inflexions in the character. Bhonsle opts for the latter. Bhonsle does not indulge in the festivities, nor does he seem impressed by the grand displays. He behaves like the invisible old man who is uninterested in the affairs of society and leads a life of quietude. It is this character trait that makes the denouement of his character very unlikely, disturbing yet reassuring.
Much of the film’s approach of situating the weak protagonist amidst the powerful world, might remind one of Makhija’s last film Ajji, where the old creaky woman sets out on a quest for revenge against the rapist of her granddaughter. Similarly, in Bhonsle too, the protagonist is a weakling in front of those who seek to kindle flames of division but sets out for avenging a heinous act. In both Ajji and Bhonsle, the avengers are low on muscle power but high on emotion. In one shot, the camera performs a steady zoom out from Bhonsle’s face to reveal him being engulfed by the madding crowd during the Ganpati festival. The festival is another note of harmony in Makhija’s cinema. It was the setting of his 2016 short film Tandaav as well, which also starred Manoj Bajpayee. In Bhonsle too, there are psychedelia-inducing shots of revellers dancing during the festival. From the very first scene, through measured intercuts, Bhonsle is compared with Lord Ganesh. In the first scene, the adorning of a Ganesh idol is intercut with Bhonsle giving up his police uniform, while in the last scene, Bhonsle’s battered and bruised being is intercut with the disintegrated body parts of an idol after immersion.
It is perhaps the director’s way of saying that the Almighty disapproves of the self-appointed gatekeepers of culture. This choice of making intellectual montage a weapon to convey information, not only signifies the director’s vision for constructing the character of Bhonsle but also stands for his usage of filmmaking as a dialectical tool. Shweta Venkat’s editing assumes great significance in the film. There are montages, meditative scenes as well as several tense moments which are captured with a hand-held camera (some with an iPhone). Each of these scenes requires different pacing, and finding the optimum number of cuts, so as not to mess with the mood which needs to be evoked, is of paramount importance. Music (the main theme) and sound design are also used as potent devices to establish the psyche of the characters. The sounds of the boisterous festival are constantly contrasted with those of Bhonsle’s quiet world.
Finally, after all is done and dusted, the film is placed on the shoulders of the legendary Manoj Bajpayee who carries it to safety with his top-notch performance. It is the viewer’s fortune to get to watch him perform his heart out. He spoke volumes through silence in Aligarh and Gali Guleiyan, in Bhonsle he does it again. Undoubtedly, there are very few actors today who can speak as efficiently with words as Bajpayee does with his eyes and body.