Director: Devashish Makhija
Writers: Devashish Makhija, Mirat Trivedi, Sharanya Rajgopal
Cinematographer: Jigmet Wangchuk
Editor: Shweta Venkat
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Santosh Juvekar, Virat Vaibhav, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh
Streaming on: SonyLiv
Manoj Bajpayee, in and as Bhonsle, plays a retired police constable. The 60-year-old man lives alone in a Mumbai chawl, where an RSS-style Marathi gang plans to use the upcoming Ganesh Chaturthi festival as a symbol of domination over the city's "North-Indian migrants". His surname, and crisp Nehru cap, suggest he was once perhaps a proud upholder of aggressive nationalism. But he's now too tired, too old, too jaded to care anymore. He has nothing to gain. He has nobody to impress. He soon forms an unlikely bond with his new Bihari neighbours: a nurse (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her kid brother (an eye-catching Virat Vaibhav). Bhonsle has lived and seen enough to figure out that India's today, unlike today's India, isn't about left or right leaning politics anymore; it's about right or wrong.
The narrative is familiar. A clue to Bhonsle's untold backstory lies in Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, a film that stars the veteran actor-director as a reclusive and racist war veteran who warms up to his new immigrant neighbours. He becomes an unofficial mentor to the Korean kid from next door. He is a lapsed catholic, which means that his own values have left him disillusioned over time. He is a widower of fading health, which means he has nothing left to lose. From the way Bhonsle moves in his tiny room, from his modest cooking skills (paav, dal, sabzi) and rusting spaces, what becomes evident is a similar sense of abandonment. The film opens with his nightmare – a montage of Bhonsle's mundanity sees him seamlessly morph into a frail old man within the same rhythm of routine. He didn't begin alone. But he is afraid of ending alone. Maybe his wife died, maybe his daughter left for greener pastures.
Watching director Devashish Makhija's short film, Taandav, might help form a fuller character portrait. Taandav, which was made in 2016 as a showreel to sell the long-in-the-making idea of Bhonsle, also starred Bajpayee as a constable during Ganesh Chaturthi. Visibly younger, with a harried wife and kid in need of school admission, the honest-to-a-fault policeman – when confronted with a spat between a Marathi manoos and migrant rickshaw driver – has a tragicomical meltdown that goes viral. The films are only spiritually related, but perhaps Taandav is a cautionary memory in Ganpat Bhonsle's head. It reveals how the pressures of survival, and the burden of principle, might have robbed Bhonsle of his trust in the system. It also reveals why Bhonsle has applied for an extension of his career – he knows no other life, and is remotely aware of the fact that he would have pulled the trigger back in the day if he wasn't wearing a uniform. His mind cannot afford to be idle during the festival of idols. Most of all, it reveals that only a man with a past loses the courage to face his future.
This is not the first time the makers have framed nihilism as the trigger of last-gasp vigilantism. Makhija's previous feature, Ajji, was centered on a creaky old lady who decides to avenge the gruesome rape of her granddaughter. Nobody expects an arthritis-afflicted grandmother to wreak havoc on a local politician, just as nobody expects Bhonsle – who is both Maharashtrian and ill – to wreak havoc on a wannabe local politician. Both characters have little else to live for, so they might as well do some good before going. The mental reasoning is uncomfortable but sound. There is however more texture to the "villain" of Bhonsle: We see more of Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), who is both a Scorsese-styled taxi driver and a literal one. The Marathi man is presumably so disoriented by the futility of his own existence that he becomes a self-styled leader of Maratha pride. He wants to be taken seriously.
The more unnerving moments of the film feature Vilas going about his daily routine: washing his clothes at a public toilet, reluctantly driving his cab, brainwashing the kids. But he is so desperate to impress an image of relevance onto people that he is constantly training himself, muttering to himself and practicing speeches and gestures in his head during these activities. Authority doesn't come naturally to him. Everything is a performance, and all his unstable ego needs is a pin to pop the balloon. Placing him opposite Bhonsle is like placing a modern Joker opposite a retired Joker. Juvekar is excellent, and he lends depth to the practiced economy of Bajpayee, who in turn evokes the fragile physicality of his Aligarh role. Most of Bajpayee's performance lies in his laboured breathing, which doubles up as dialogue for the brooding protagonist. He aces the art of suppression again; Bhonsle wears a pent-up look, but also a wariness about his own impending explosion.
One gets a sense from Makhija's filmmaking that, at times, he tries too hard to make the viewer feel the force of systematic oppression. Perhaps it comes from deep-rooted experience, but the craft tends to appear a little gimmicky in its pursuit of immersiveness. For instance, a brawl in the toilet is cut to the first-person perspectives of the two tumbling men. The claustrophobia of the camera is deliberate here. It tells you that the director wants you to suffer like his characters. But there's a fine line between creating to move and manufacturing to provoke; in a visual medium, incoherence often amounts to alienation. At other times, this stubborn style works. The shot of a crow – a sign of danger – is repeatedly inserted into Bhonsle's routine. Similarly, rats are highlighted for their duality – as a symbol of both divinity (Ganesha) and discard (migrants). A long shot tracks out to reveal Bhonsle lost in a sea of faces, literalizing the idea of how the working-class use religious festivals as a front to escape their own insignificance. For those ten days, they exorcise the disease of singularity by resorting to an illusion of plurality.
The symbolism of the festival itself – where elaborately crafted Ganpati idols are decorated and dressed only to disintegrate in an ocean – is intercut with Bhonsle's life in a way that questions him rather than offering him as an answer. It's disconcerting, after all, that the statues are most important when they dissolve in the water. Imagine being remembered only for the final minute of leaving, instead of the years of living that precede it.