Based on his recent work, Devashish Makhija's film aesthetic appears to be a pulp sensibility that's deeply rooted in the real. Both Ajji (2017) and Bhonsle — both extremely well-made — have a rape/revenge element, and a one-line description might sound preposterous. If the avenger in the earlier film was a 60-something woman, here it's a 60-something man. But Ajji gave us a few things that similarly themed dramas like Mom and Maatr didn't: weakness, frailty, queasy-making touches like the cop who peers down the little girl's legs to ascertain the rape. The girl's grandmother, the avenger, suffers from arthritis. In a touching scene, she places two glasses of warm tea on her knees. And yet, she's stronger than she seems. When she finds the child in a dump, bleeding, she doesn't break down. She's led a hard life, and she's perhaps in shock. But the tears only come later, when she sees the rapist's bed. Plot-wise, it's pulp. Psychologically, it's shatteringly real.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of Ajji is how it re-imagines the traditional "training montage". By cutting meat at a butcher's, the woman is given lessons on what it's like to slice into flesh. The scenario may be "unbelievable" (i.e. the domain of far-fetched pulp), but the film goes the distance to put us in this old woman's chappal-s. In Bhonsle, this empathy is achieved through Manoj Bajpayee's expectedly diligent, carefully shaded performance, as a havaldar named Ganpat Bhonsle. Compare this man to Dr. Siras from Aligarh, and you'll see how differently the actor plays the two men, who are similar in age. Dr. Siras is an aesthete, a sensitive Guru Dutt character. The man has developed a set of mildly showy mannerisms over the years, but the actor's performance is deeply internal. And this is as it should be, because the man is impacted by something inside him: his sexuality.
Ganpat Bhonsle is less… refined, if you want to call it that. The radio in his tiny room in a chawl sputters to life not with ethereal Lata Mangeshkar numbers but with the drab daily news. Like Dr. Siras, he's lonely and he likes to keep to himself, but in this case, the man looks like he doesn't have an inner life to speak of. We never get to know him, his past. What we "see" is his marginalisation, and his age: so Manoj Bajpayee paints this character with externals. The walk is a slow shuffle. The lips are pursed. The breathing is an asthmatic wheeze. The words tumble out like precious drops of water from a tap not quite closed all the way. The film's opening — on the day Bhonsle is retiring from service, the day he is marginalised from being a productive part of society — tells us that this man's life is over, in a way. If he doesn't get the extension he seeks, the remainder of his days is just a slow wait for death.
The early portions of Bhonsle suck us into this monotony, the sheer non-event of this man's everyday life. He keeps repeating a series of household chores. Jigmet Wangchuk, the cinematographer, locks us in with frames that are small, tight, dark — they rarely allow us to see Bhonsle in full. It's just the crook of an elbow or knee, or an extended arm. You can see him growing old performing this numbing routine, which is the image we get in a small, surreal visual — as though we've fast-forwarded 20 years and a now-white-haired Bhonsle is still scrubbing and washing. In a moving moment, he blows on his police whistle to see if it works. The piercing sound comes forth, but with gusts of air. Like him, it's going rusty.
But around Bhonsle, life goes on. The chawl he lives in — "Churchill" chawl — may be a microcosm for Mumbai. It's home to an open war between home-grown Maharashtrians and the newly arrived "bhaiya log", the Biharis. (Watching these migrant workers with the hindsight of COVID-19 is curiously affecting.) The Mumbaikars, led by Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), see the Biharis as usurpers. "They work here and use all our resources and send the money they earn to their homes." So Vilas and his cohorts seek to establish their supremacy over "Churchill" chawl/Mumbai by claiming the right to install the pandal for the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in the precincts. But the Biharis (led by Abhishek Banerjee's Rajendra) are no innocents. They play sly games, too, and infuriate the locals.
Amidst this political simmering, there is a personal development when the carefully named Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty) moves next door to Bhonsle, with her younger brother Lalu (Virat Vaibhav). She's a reminder that big cities would be nothing without migrants, who bring with them special skills: Sita is a nurse. When Bhonsle is admitted to the hospital after a fall, she takes care of him and he even gets a "family discount". Mangesh Dhakde's melancholic guitar-sarangi theme draws us deep into these personal relationships, which aren't necessarily formed by choice. So does the script. At one point, Lalu stands as though mimicking Bhonsle's pose, and both Bhonsle and Sita suffer a traumatic incident that's drowned out by the din of festival revelry. One would assume that these writing choices — these deliberate parallels — are meant to align this particular Maharashtrian with these "bhaiya log".
But then, consider the stretch that keeps cross-cutting between Vilas and Bhonsle — both waiting to see a higher-up, but repeatedly denied permission. Now, the editing pattern appears to conflate these two Maharashtrians. But most of all, Ganpat Bhonsle is conflated with the god he's named after, the god whose festival marks the timeframe of the film, the god whose name (Siddhivinayak) is found even on the name of the nursing home Bhonsle is admitted in. As the film progressed, I came to think of Bhonsle as a decaying deity, once powerful (he was in the force) but not any longer. That may be why his room is on the first floor. Like a god, he looks down at the follies of the humans below, who gather around an overflowing gutter that slices through the open courtyard. The sewage could mean anything from the gutter-politics of hate-mongering to the gutter male-mind that seeks to relieve itself of frustration and rage through violence towards women.
Like a god, Bhonsle is not easily accessible: he keeps slamming his door, shutting out others. Like a god, he's neutral: Marathi or Bihari, all men and women are equal. Like a god, Bhonsle is a moral centre: the residents of the chawl seek his approval, his "blessings". Like a god, he is surrounded by all of creation: rats and roaches, cats and crows and dogs. And like a god, Bhonsle punishes the wicked. But he is, at the end, a frail human. And the pulpy final portions demand every last ounce of his wheezy breath. Like an avatar of god, he performs his actions and leaves.
And this may explain the bookending sections of Bhonsle. The opening scene shows a Ganesha statue being built for the celebrations, and simultaneously keeps cutting to Bhonsle stripping off his police uniform and slipping into civilian clothes. The closing scene shows a post-festival Ganesha, discarded in the sea. The most exquisite scene in the film is a slow zoom-out from a sea of humans, in which both Ganpat the man and Ganpati the god are eventually lost. There's something sad and delicate and existential here: man or god, the lifespan is finite. You mean something as long as you are useful. And then, people move on and you're forgotten.