Manoj Bajpayee in Bhosle. (Image courtesy: YouTube)
Two deeply affecting portraits of urban tumult – one reflecting the emotional edginess of a lonesome individual trapped in the airless shell of his mind, the other playing out in the form of the yearnings of a dispossessed group of people, were among the films that stood out at the 7th Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), an annual four-day celebration of independent cinema that concluded in McLeodganj on Sunday.
The creative impulse and cultural space that Devashish Makhija's Bhonsle is completely different from the ones that Anamika Haksar's Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon is rooted in, which explains why the two films are unlikely to impact the audience in similar ways. The former is set in Mumbai, the latter in old Delhi. Each bears the stamp of the personality of its director.
The intense, slow-burning Bhonsle, which premiered in Busan last month, is a provocative piece of cinema that lunges fearlessly at the politics of hate-mongering. Lit and lensed with great skill by Jigmet Wangchuk, the film also draws its power from a subdued Manoj Bajpayee, who is as wonderful as ever, exuding silent anguish in the role of a superannuated police constable spurred into violent action when anti-migrant sentiment threatens to overrun the lower middle class Mumbai chawl that he is a resident of.
Anamika Haksar's Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, on the other hand, offers an exuberant, kaleidoscopic view of the underbelly of old Delhi, a part of the city that is populated by street vendors, pickpockets, loaders, factory workers, rag-pickers and beggars who haven't lost their zest for life in the face of continued privation and exploitation. For them, each uncertain day is a struggle for survival, but they continue to cling to their dream of a better life. Their flights of fancy keep them going.
In tone and texture, too, the two films are worlds apart. And that isn't owing solely to the locations of the stories. Bhonsle is the third narrative feature of an agent provocateur. Ghode Ko Jalebi… is the debut film of seasoned theatre practitioner. Bhonsle probes the enervating loneliness of an introvert whose last shot at redemption presents itself in an unexpected circumstances. Haksar's film hinges on empathy for the marginalised. It shines through in the brightest of ways in every frame of her freewheeling essay.
Bhonsle's eponymous protagonist grapples with crushing world-weariness and an inability to connect with people outside his personal and professional sphere. The resilient 'little people' who populate Ghode Ko Jalebi… celebrate life on the margins of an urban sprawl with infectious optimism. But both films are political in nature. They touch upon the themes of economic exploitation and social oppression.
Makhija's film, composed with desaturated images, cycles of image-repetition and minimalist touches that border on the deadpan, plays out in a typical Mumbai cluster of tenements where tempers flare when a bunch of Hindi-speaking 'outsiders' – Biharis, to be precise – seek a piece of the joy that the city's most important religious festival ushers in its wake. Bhonsle, which, like Makhija's previous film, Ajji, weaves vengeance into its plot, alludes to the possibility of the victimised migrants hitting back when driven into a corner – one hotheaded Bihari (Abhishek Banerjee) resorts to incitement after he is assaulted, but it makes it a point to warn of the pitfalls of such adventurism. Bhonsle does not allow for an all's-well-that-ends-well kind of end.
The fight over the right to worship Lord Ganesh becomes a bitter battle between a bigoted son of the soil Vilas Dhavle (Santosh Juvekar) and a hapless Bihari boy Lalu (Virat Vaibhav) who has just moved into the chawl with his elder sister Sita Prasad (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh), a nurse, and is drawn into a confrontation he can barely understand.
Ganpat Bhonsle, whose forced retirement from the Mumbai police force has sent him back to the listless routine of his existence in a dark, dank dwelling but hasn't doused the hope of a career extension, takes the side of his new neighbours with shocking consequences for himself and the woman.
Ganpat's reticence is misconstrued as acquiescence by the local rabble-rouser who wants all his fellow Marathi-speakers to unite and throw out the "bhaiyya log", who he frequently refers to as rats and vermin. Makhija uses images of swarming rodents and roaches to suggest humanity in decay. A crow sits on Bhonsle's window sill, observing a man who has willfully shut the world out. When politics intrudes into Bhonsle's life, he responds to the threats with one final act of heroism.
The threats faced by the underclass in Shahjahanabad, whose hopes and aspirations provide the under-meshing of Ghode Ko Jalebi…, are negotiated in surprisingly defiant, unflappable ways. The sheer unpredictability of their lives is mirrored by the film, which combines documentary realism with flamboyant stylisation to take the audience into the heart of a world that is rarely seen in our cinema.
The film uses animation and painted landscapes in articulating the dreams and delusions of the residents of old Delhi, captured through the stories of a pickpocket (Ravindra Sahu), a street food vendor (Raghuvir Yadav), a loader-labour activist (K Gopalan) and heritage walk guide (Lokesh Jain). These stage actors steeped in different forms of theatre are aided by a cast of 300-plus real Shahjahanabad residents in realising the vision of the director.
There has never been a better cinematic ode of old Delhi than Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon. While the film paints no prettified pictures, it does not romanticise the struggles of these men and women either. Women? Yes a couple of them deliver the film's most radical passage: it suggests a furtive but assertive same-sex bonding. Filled with delightful randomness, Anamika Haksar's film abounds in such surprises.