STORY: Retiree Ganpat Bhonsle (Manoj Bajpayee) leads a monotonous life in a dingy ‘kholi’ that is divided between two distinct communities – ‘Marathi manoos’ and the ‘Bhaiyas’. But, the arrival of a migrant neighbour, Sita Prasad (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her younger brother Lalu (Virat Vaibhav) poses a pertinent question: who is an outsider, and who are our own?
REVIEW: A man of few words and steady habits – washing clothes, cooking, feeding the dog before calling it a day – Bhonsle is aloof and oblivious to what’s happening around him. And that includes maintaining solid distance from the constant bickering and sometimes violent confrontations between Bihari migrants and the local Maharastrians at his ‘chawl’ in suburban Mumbai. The banality of his existence is so frustrating that one time Bhonsle dreams of dying a silent death while carrying on with the absurdities of his own life – old, alone, withdrawn and no one to keep him company. But, all that changes when a young nurse Sita from the ‘rival community’ shows up at his doorstep for a cursory introduction as his new next-door neighbour.
Initially reluctant, perhaps out of habit, Bhonsle lets Sita and her brother Lalu into his dark and murky world of prison-like solitary, which in turn, paves the path for a beautiful companionship to foster and blossom. Bhonsle’s years of quiet existence is suddenly shaken up by the unexpected love and care he receives from the siblings and the newfound empathy towards this pair attracts an enemy – mouthy and reckless local taxi driver with political aspirations, Vilas (Santosh Juvekar).
The timing of Sony LIV’s ‘Bhonsle’ – which, we hear, has been a festival-circuit favourite for a while now – couldn’t have been more apt. Just days ago, the then completely locked-down nation woke up to the horrific visuals of thousands of migrants flocking the streets to get home braving Coronavirus and exposing themselves to the threat of fatal consequences (out of exhaustion and hunger). And now – as a fictional recap of the plight of those who went home, and those who couldn’t – we have ‘Bhonsle’ portraying the not-so-posh side of the financial capital of India: where Bhaiya is often used more like a racial slur and not what you call your brother, and a section of the society wanting to drive them out as they believe Maharashtra is only for those born and bred in the state. Although the narrative is slow-paced and the aura is a mixed bag of gloom and conflict, this societal drama conjures up a storm within you and ask a few uncomfortable questions: what makes Mumbai, Mumbai? Who really is an ‘outsider’ in today’s world? And, why are they treated differently?
As the 60-year-old former police personnel still looking for a way in, Bajpayee barely mouths any dialogues and even when he does, they are mostly the mumblings of a dejected man. But, he lets his body do all the talking – the deathly glares intimidate Vilas as he stands at his door asking to participate in the war against ‘them’, even the trembling of his aged lips and the occasional eye twitch spells a cast on his fellow residents – across borders – and the audience, too. Santosh Juvekar’s Vilas stands on the opposite end of the spectrum – loud, relentless and quick to lose his temper. There seems to be a simmering tension between them, but Juvekar does a brilliant job in both feigning respect for his ‘kaka’ and then giving in to his demons. His story is no different from Sita’s or the Uttar Dakhshin Sangha’s local leader Rajendra (Abhishek Banerjee): they just want to fit in and blend with the crowd. Ipshita Chakraborty Singh shoulders the responsibility of rendering justice to a character that is so beautifully layered, while matching up to the performance of a powerful actor; she succeeds. The young Virat Vaibhav, as it turns out, is an artiste who needs no babysitting or spoon-feeding. Even in a brief role as the scapegoat for Rajendra’s pent-up frustration, the child actor shines bright underneath those ragged clothes and sad eyes.
Writers Devashish Makhija (also, the director), Sharanya Rajgopal and Mirat Trivedi have collaborated with cinematographer Jigmet Wangchuk to paint a distinct picture of the cultural confluence that is Mumbai. The Ganpati festival, which Mumbai is known to celebrate with a lot of pomp and show, serves both as a metaphor and the backdrop in this film. Mangesh Dhakde’s original background music makes an appearance only at crucial moments in the film, adding to the melancholic mood and treatment of ‘Bhonsle’.
Having said that, Devashish Makhija should have taken a more rounded and wholesome approach towards one character, Abhishek Banerjee's. Just when you think all that rage is headed towards a satisfying climax, his role is cut short and Banerjee’s Rajendra melts into the crowd, without a closure.
‘Bhonsle’ is the gateway to understanding what’s it like to be ‘the other’ in a city full of ‘others’. While some of us are ‘privileged’ enough to be born here, and may never know how a migrant survives in a place like Mumbai, this film is for those who do.