Can good really win over evil? It’s a philosophical question that many have tried to answer over the years and have arrived at different answers for. Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle, which did well at film festivals in 2018 and ’19, but is only now released, on SonyLiv, shows the audience that the battle between good and evil doesn’t have to be grand. Even the smallest acts of kindness can act as a slap in the face of evil.
Set in a time when Maharashtra was angrily rejecting North Indians as ‘outsiders’, Bhonsle looks at how learned hatred can eat away at a person and how a little love can right some wrongs. Manoj Bajpayee plays the titular role of Ganpat Bhonsle, a retired, sickly, policeman who likes to keep to himself and lives more for his job than for himself.
Post retirement, he is forced to make peace with his solitary life within the four walls of his tiny, grey flat in a squalid chawl in Mumbai. His neighbourhood is visited often by a pro-Marathi taxi driver, Vilas, who is bent on making a leap into local politics by promising to drive out non-Marathis. But everyone knows that Vilas is all bark and no bite — a shortcoming that weighs heavy on him.
Bhonsle’s one-track world changes when a young North Indian girl, Sita, and her brother, Lalu, move in next to him, and are threatened by Vilas and his violent politics. As he forms an unlikely bond with his new neighbours, Bhonsle decides to take one last stand against evil, in his own, small way.
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Manoj Bajpayee shines in this slow, striking film
Bhonsle is a slow, striking film. Director Devashish Makhija takes deliberate care and precision to set the mood of the film with each shot, emphasising the depressing desolation of Bhonsle’s life, the desperation in Vilas’ and the fear in Sita and Lalu’s. Bhonsle’s grey walls close in on him as he makes his solitary roti and watery dal, with only the leak from his roof and a broken radio for company. Vilas is constantly trying to garner clout with the neighbourhood, to somehow achieve some standing in life, but is also constantly being thrown down.
The cinematography by Jigmet Wangchuk is half the reason Bhonsle is such a watchable film. The other reason is Bajpayee. The actor, known for his natural talent at striking at the heart of the character (and audiences), delivers in a way that makes you realise why he belongs in a different league of actors altogether.
Bajpayee barely has a handful of lines, all of them muted and uttered under his breath, and yet, Bhonsle is all you can see in the film. The body language, the facial expressions, the quirks — Bajpayee is the quiet star here, as is his Bhonsle. The supporting cast of Santosh Juvekar as Vilas, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh as Sita and Virat Vaibhav as Lalu, chip in beautifully with perfect timing and nuanced acting.
While the story flows smoothly, albeit a little predictably, it does slow down unnecessarily in parts. The music, by Mangesh Dhakde, is minimalistic and works well with the understated story. Sharper editing could have elevated Bhonsle to a truly remarkable film, as it tells a small story that carries a huge lesson.