Rape has a specific purpose in culture. It is oppression.
Devashish Makhija investigates cultural bigotry and cultural misogyny through his latest film Bhonsle.
I could have titled this as Meditations on Rape and Death. Instead I will draw my inspiration from TS Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Devashish Makhija’s new film Bhonsle is a confluence of longing and loneliness. A tale of bonhomie with the detractor. A saga of a threatening antagonist who brings out the values and power of the protagonist to the fore. A love story where two people seek hope in each other. Not romance. The screenplay is replete with sounds of silence. The chief characters Bhonsle, Vilas, Sita and Lalu live the mundane and not so mundane mostly noiselessly.
In Eliot’s poem J Alfred Prufrock eats his heart out over his body and mind’s decay. We identify his lassitude and fatigue as the voice of modern literature. With Prufrock English literature moved from romanticism to Modernism. Show it as it is. Bhonsle is also aware of his mortality. Makhija tiptoes around Bhonsle’s mortal fears.. He does it tenderly, respectfully and cautiously.
The old and retired cop Bhonsle and the young cab driver Vilas are two ends of the same spectrum. One is old and accustomed to his solitude. The other is young, restless and not ready to give in to his impoverished circumstances. Bhonsle is silently observant. Vilas is loud and reckless. He is the decisive foil. He highlights by contrast and similarity Bhonsle’s values and predilections. Bhonsle and Vilas seem to synchronize their moves and have some sort of a rhythm when they go through their day. Two sides of the same coin. But the same coin. Makhija focuses on it time and again with his craftsmanship. As if saying you can’t ignore the tormented youth in Vilas. He is like you and me. In his silences he is so much like the hero – Bhonsle.
Bhonsle (played brilliantly by Manoj Bajpai) is by provincial parameters an insider . He lives in the state of Maharashtra which is his cultural and linguistic homeland. Yet by virtue of his age, class, work we find him isolated. He belongs nowhere. He identifies with nobody. He wants only one thing. An extension in his service. He lives in solitude but even he cant bear with the disconnect that his retirement brings in. Bhonsle’s silence gets amplified when the birds flutter outside his window. A kitten meows. Some rats run across the room or the rickety stair case creaks under his light weight. His is a dilapidated Mumbai chawl with soot laden walls. We don’t see him walk on the Mumbai streets that have bright billboards. Bhonsle personifies Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics-
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
The old man Bhonsle is tenacious with his choices. He detests Vilas’s supremacist politics . He refuses to tacitly give into hatred towards the outsiders who in this case are the migrant workers living in his building. This makes Bhonsle somewhat of an outsider. By choice?
Vilas positions himself as the “Insider”. The bigot who will protect his culture and his community. However, Vilas is often alone and humiliated. In such moments he is numb and cold. He is restrained. He is voiceless.
Sita, the nurse from Bihar and her brother Lalu want to mingle and merge. Sita tries to talk with Bhonsle. No one in the chawl seems interested in her. Least of all old man Bhonsle. Lalu eventually befriends a dog. Sita and Lalu are the Outsiders. This is not by choice.
Bhonsle will trigger debates about why Makhija’s rape stories don’t highlight the survivor’s agency, choice and life after rape. There will be discussions about whether this film focuses on vigilante justice or its a film about Bhonsle’s wasteland and freak accidents. What we will have to commend though is the way Makhija has connected the dots between culture, misogyny and rape. In Bhonsle rape is highlighted as cultural oppression. That any supremacist or expansionist culture is a culture of rape as well.
Makhija's Bhonsle can be seen on SONY LIV from the 26th of June.
I had the opportunity to chat with Devashish Makhija and I asked him the obvious.
How did he map the silences? How long did it take him to design the sound for this film? “More than three months”, he confided. “Actually the silences are full of sounds”, he added.
I had attributed the beats and the rhythm of the film to him being a poet. I recall now Makhija used to have a music band in Kolkata. He is also a musician.
How many drafts did he write to weave in the silences ?
Makhija explained that the film went through many ups and downs. It got made after 4 years. In those four years Devashish watched his father grow old. He started deleting dialogues from his script as he watched his father live with the Alzheimer’s disease. He communicated with his father’s silences. He noticed his father religiously fill the thermos with warm tea. Devashish became increasingly mindful of the sounds surrounding his father as his father turned inwards. His draft changed with his father’s deteriorating health. The sound of the film evolved.
Makhija like T.S Eliot is a chronicler of otherness, loneliness and alienation. With his father as his muse Makhija has written his best love song.
The Love Song of Bhonsle.
- Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence
- T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock