Raising questions is me doing what I perceive to be my duty as an artist ~Devashish Makhija
Devashish Makhija shares with us his deep insight into the making of Bhonsle, Ajji and more.
A published author, filmmaker and screenwriter – Devashish Makhija lets us take a peek inside his mind, in his own words.
After the award-winning work on his last film ‘Ajji’, he is all set to reveal his upcoming film ‘Bhonsle’ starring Manoj Bajpayee. ‘Bhonsle’ revolves around the story of a migrant, posing a pressing question to all of humankind – what makes one an ‘outsider’? Ranging from the struggles one faces on being made to feel like he/she doesn’t ‘belong’ – to – factors that decide where the territory of one man begins and that of another man starts – Bhonsle is bound to touch a lot of sensitive nerves. With an overwhelming premiere at Busan we discuss Bhonsle with it’s maker just before he left for BIFF 2018.
Bhonsle is your latest work after the bizarre and outré Ajji which took the crowd by storm at its’ premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, which is where Bhonsle premiered as well! Tell us the story behind the idea of a film like Bhonsle.
Firstly I’m flattered you found Ajji ‘bizarre’. I try to not be normal. But our world today is splitting at the seams with horrifically outlandish leaders, events and news, making the bizarre seem so normal to most, that no one has used this adjective for my films up until now. So, thank you.
The Korean film-goer has often celebrated and rewarded the violently off-kilter (‘Mother’, ‘Memories of murder’, ‘Old Boy’, an endless list). They embraced Ajji, and we’re eager they’ll embrace the (hopefully) bizarre Bhonsle as well!
Bhonsle is a treatise on the ‘outsider’. The one who is made to feel like he/she does not belong. The migrant to this land. The film explores the idea of being an Outsider in various ways. It felt like the right time to explore this particular theme. Every nation in the world right now is fighting the same demons. Factions in each country – from Syria to America to India – have identified who they think are Outsiders (and hence do not belong) and are targeting them. The basis of difference may be culture, history, religion, caste, language or race. But the manner of violent exclusion seems to be a pattern repeating across the world currently.
We (my co-writer Mirat Trivedi and) I wanted desperately to start a discourse around this politic. But through a dramatic, moving human story of an ageing, dying man who finds himself dropping off the edge of the familiar.
2) After his last release, ‘Galli Gulliyan’ we can’t wait to see Manoj Bajpayee on the big screen again, why did you pick him specifically for the lead role? What was his reaction when you approached him for the role?
It feels incorrect to say that I picked him. Such things are sometimes out of your control. You could say Manoj and I found one another – via Bhonsle. He owned, assimilated, and treasured Bhonsle as much as I did over the past four plus years it has taken for both of us to cobble it together producer by producer, day by day, meeting by meeting. This was a battle we fought side by side. I didn’t choose him… Bhonsle did.
My co-writers (Mirat and Sharanya) and my agents Tulsea (Chaitanya and Datta) tracked down Manoj and his manager and sent the script. We were expecting to wait some weeks before hearing from him. Manoj called back the very next morning. He had read the script in one sitting. And was bouncing off the walls with excitement. This was in early 2014. He knew this was going to be a very difficult film to find finance for. And called me in, I suspect, to gauge if I had the stamina and patience for the fight.
We got on the same page in a matter of seconds. We both acknowledged that he could play the part anytime over the next 20 years, since the character requires him to be aged. And I didn’t flinch at the possibility of it taking 20 years to arrive at shooting this film. That was the moment we shook hands and said to each other ‘Lets begin.’
3) Words have been swung around saying that getting people to produce the film was tough. Tell us about the challenges you faced trying to get a team on board.
A film that doesn’t primarily seek to entertain, but instead move, question the status quo, disturb the balance will always be difficult to find funding for. This is crores of rupees we are talking about. I always say that I’ve never seen even a lakh of rupees at a time, and here I’m asking people to give me crores to bring my own artistic intent to life. There is nothing more self-serving and arrogant than that.
What I also always say is – that then on a film such as this (as was the case with Ajji) – not the director, the producers are the true heroes. They are risking a lot on a whimsical artist’s need to express himself. They are the true warriors of such cinema. And we need many many more of them.
Manoj himself was the first on board. In that first conversation itself he told me that no matter what the circumstance and no matter when we make the film he would be co- producer. That belief is what slowly attracted many others to come join the fight.
Manoj and I made ‘Taandav’ with Muvizz – Piiyush and Abhayanand Singh. After which Muvizz came on to produce Bhonsle. The success of Taandav gave everyone strength and conviction to take the fight to the bigger arena.
Bit by bit other producers came on board. Saurabh Gupta. Sandeep Kapoor. And a bunch of brave, supportive co-producers. If ever there was a mini-army producing a film merely because they believed in it, this was it.
4) You are known to have a record of creating vagarious work that is bound to leave a mark on the watcher’s mind (whether or not it is welcome in their headspace!). Is that a point you are trying to make through your films?
I don’t try consciously to mess with people’s heads. But I do aim to mess with their hearts. I want always to raise questions. We don’t question ourselves enough. We do cruel, illegitimate things to others and to our world, and hope that no one’s going to question us. Through my films I hope to make us all stop dead in our tracks – even if for just a moment – and think about how horrifically self-centred we have all gotten.
I feel that if as a storyteller I don’t fulfil some social responsibility I haven’t earned the right to practice my craft. This is entirely a personal subjective viewpoint. But I hold myself to it as ruthlessly as I possibly can. I believe if we have rights as citizens we also have duties. And raising questions is me doing what I perceive to be my duty as an artist.
5) Ajji was a pill a bit too harsh to swallow for the Indian audiences. What sort of a reaction are you expecting, and hoping to get from them this time around for Bhonsle?
It’s hard to have expectations of what you have created if you don’t have a reference point for what you have created. And I never operate with any reference points. My only guiding tools are my inner artistic instinct and my horror at what the human race has become.
With Ajji we didn’t have such a sharp notion of how the audience would respond. We did have some inkling that it’s a tough film to watch. But that it would make viewers’ hands tremble with rage and helplessness was not something we anticipated.
Just like with Taandav although we were proud of the film we had made, we had absolutely no idea it would become the landmark sensation that the short film turned out to be.
So with Bhonsle we hope it moves people and starts debates. But we have no idea really how and what the response might be. That’s also the most satisfying, fun, exciting thing about art (as opposed to commerce) – you cannot predict the response. With a commercial product you extrapolate backwards from audience expectation, and broadly know beforehand what the response might be. But when you’re only proceeding on an artistic impulse, every step of the way is a revelation.
I’m nervous and excited. Because I don’t know whats in store for Bhonsle.
And this precise nervousness and excitement is what I make my kind of films for. To not know is my fuel. If I knew I might as well not even begin trying. Where is the sense of discovery in that.
6) When can we expect your next whirl-winder?
Bizarre. Outré. Vagarious. Whirl-winder. You make my films sound more exciting than they actually are. 😀
I have made two emotionally draining films back to back without a day’s break over two years now. I have to now return to my other love – my novel. It’s a Young Adult political coming-of-age novel set in a time and place of developmental conflict. I had left it half-done to make Ajji. I will only return to cinema once this novel is complete.
Once I do, there are about half a dozen ‘whirl-winders’ I have baked and ready to restart my fight with.