Shillpi. A. Singh caught up with the writer-filmmaker to talk about his journey as an artist and the process that worked for him
He used to be a journalist, then a copywriter cum art-director in an advertising agency when he decided to hop into an unreserved compartment in a train bound to Mumbai. Now he makes award winning films, but what truly defines 40-year-old Devashish Makhija is the fact that he is a story teller at heart. Clearly a festival darling, his latest offering Bhonsle premiered to rave reviews at the Busan Film Festival in South, MAMI and the Dharamshala International Film Festival recently. The film stars Manoj Bajpayee as a 60-year-old constable on the brink of retirement and looking for an extension of service. Despite his best efforts he can’t hold on to the job and his world comes crashing down. It is during this time that he befriends two young Bihar-born migrant neighbors in his chawl.
The story begins a couple of days before the annual Ganeshotsav and it becomes the central premise of the film as it tracks the political game at play to oust North Indian migrants out of Mumbai, and shows how Bhonsle rises to the occasion to fight for his unlikely friends and what is right.
The marginalised play an important role in all of Makhija’s films and stories, the only trait he has consistently carried over from his days of assisting Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday). When he is not making films, he dabbles in screenplays, has also had a solo art show and even written the bestselling children’s books, When Ali Became Bajrangbali and Why Paploo was Perplexed, a Harper-Collins collection of short stories Forgetting and a forthcoming book of poems, Disengaged. By Two, a story by him in the omnibus Mumbai Noir, has been adapted into a feature-length film to be directed by him next year. He has also written and directed the multiple award-winning short films Taandav, El’ayichi, And then they came for me, Don’t cry for Rahim LeCock and Absent and full length feature films Ajji (Granny)
We caught up with the man of the moment to talk about his journey as an artist and the process that works for him.
Read the excerpts below.
What was life like before films happened?
My parents were born in Pakistan, and came to India during partition. I was born and raised in Calcutta. I won an under-12 national championship in karate. Almost got killed in a riot on the 6th of December 1992. I sang in a rock band. Danced in a contemporary troupe. Failed chemistry in class 8. Cracked a 100/100 in mathematics in the ICSE. I was a trivia junkie, quizzed like a beast. Failed mathematics in the first-year college. I cracked a first class in B.Sc. Economics. I was a journalist, then a copywriter-cum-art director in advertising. Then got into an unreserved compartment in a train bound for Bombay. And proceeded to make my past redundant.
You have authored a couple of books for children. Tell us something about your writing experience? What do you enjoy more? Writing or filmmaking?
Writing defines my being. I don’t limit my stories to any medium. If a story cannot become a film, I turn it into prose. If a piece of prose cannot become a children’s book or a novel, I turn it into a short story. If an idea cannot become a story I write it as a poem. There is a lot of cross-pollination of my ideas and stories between mediums. I enjoy telling stories. The medium is secondary. So I cannot genuinely separate writing from filmmaking. Since in both I’m essentially telling a story. The craft of the medium is primarily at the service of the story being told.
How did films happen? How has your cinematic journey been?
I came to Bombay to see if I could make films. It started with researching and assisting on Black Friday. Then I was the chief assistant on Bunty Aur Babli. I was signed to write and direct an animation film for a tie-up between YashRaj and Disney. Three years into production it got shelved. In the few years that followed, almost a dozen films I wrote and was directing started, then stopped at different stages, for different reasons. The one film that managed to get completed, Oonga, never released. Things turned when I dived into short films. I made four within the same year. And that led to me making two back-to-back features, the second of which I’m in the post-production of right now.
How was Ajji conceived? How did you get into about casting for your films?
Like all disturbing socio-political films, Ajji too was a response to the bleakness of the times we live in. In the past few years, there has been endless reportage about violence against women in this country. But the true nature and extent of this violence had almost no representation in the cinema of our times. We wanted to present the violence without the glorification or unnecessary dramatization that most films opt for. Finding actors was not the challenge for this film. The challenge was to find the women who would epitomize the things this film seeks to say. Each of the actresses – and female crew – in this film are champions. They are strong – both within the paradigm of the story, and in their own lives – and they are fighters. We didn’t form a ‘cast’ in this film, we formed a feminist army.
Why do you choose such grim subjects? What is the guiding thought behind choosing the subjects of your film?
We live in a grim world. We often seek ‘escape’ from the cinema. I wanted to use this medium to subvert that expectation. I wanted to give the viewer the opposite of the escape – I wanted to ‘trap’ them in the same grimness that the silent majority of our country (and the world) have to live with each and every day of their lives. We wanted this film to be a true mirror to what we have become. And the truth is brutal. The truth is ugly. The truth is something we do not want to be reminded of. The agenda then was to give the viewer what they did NOT want.
Tell us more about Bhonsle? How has it been working with Manoj Bajpayee? Your second film with him after Tandaav.
Bhonsle is roughly a feature-length exploration of the same themes we explored in our short Taandav. It’s a bigger, broader, much more ambitious film than Ajji. But again we’ve tried to explore some of the more disturbing socio-political issues and questions of our times.
Manoj is more than the sum of his parts for me. He’s the reason I managed to finally embark on – and continue – my filmy journey. He has shown faith in me and fought for my freedom when most others were scared to. He and I share something special. I haven’t found the right words to describe that yet. Also, he and I have only just begun!
Any interesting anecdote that you would like to share?
I often tell my team (and am sometimes considered borderline crazy for it) that on a film that is being made with pure artistic intent, ‘synchronicities’ occur. There are things I might want in the frame / in a scene / at a location that might be impossible to acquire or coordinate given the odds we’re often up against. But if the energy of the intent is strong and clear then the desire finds a cosmic way to manifest when you need it most. It’ll do so without warning. But it’ll do so at a time when you won’t be acutely aware of it.
Now I needed stray dogs as a recurring motif in this film. Dogs are Ajji’s silent, secret allies. They guide and protect her through the sordid nights that she has to navigate the dangerous filth of the city’s underbelly to get to Dhavle’s world. We didn’t have resources for an animal wrangler of the caliber I needed for the job. So I decided to take a chance on the universe. We purposely shot at locations where strays proliferated. Sushama (who plays Ajji) was scared of strays. And as soon as a few dozen of us (the crew) would land up at a location and start spreading our gear and equipment, the strays would disappear. My team would panic, not sure how to coax the dogs into frame at the opportune moment when I’d need them. Although I too was worried, I disguised my worry, and left this to the Elements. We kept shooting, regardless. In some takes dogs appeared without warning just as the camera rolled, and did what they needed to do, and then disappeared. In most takes, they didn’t appear. Since it was I who had made such a delusional cosmic plan, I had to live with what I got.
I wasn’t prepared for what was to happen in edit. When we started cutting the film, my editor Ujjwal got spooked. Each and every OK take (the take of each shot that got approved and stayed in the film) had stray dogs in them. And the ones we rejected for narrative / creative purposes, happened NOT to have stray dogs in them. In the final film, each and every time Ajji dives into the night to hunt down Dhavle, there are strays following her, leading her, sniffing around for her, watching over her. Even when I did not know which take I would end up keeping in the final film, the dogs knew! And they appeared where I needed them, and didn’t where I wouldn’t need them.
To date, many ask me who was in charge of coordinating the magical timing of the dogs in the film. I smile mysteriously and stay silent. I cannot explain to them what I haven’t fully understood myself.
How has it been making Bhonsle? Has this journey culminated well?
Manoj and I had been trying to make it in 2014, then again in 2015. We had been trying to get this film off the ground for quite some time. We met a couple of producers then. In 2016, he asked me to make a short film to prove to the people that we can make a movie around this kind of subject. We made Taandav, and it changed everything. It has taken a while to prove to the world that we can make something like this. We have five-six producers who came around, one by one, to support Bhonsle.
I have had so many films that didn’t work out over the years; more than 15-16 projects didn’t take off. So I don’t get too excited anymore. Many movies get made but don’t hit the theatres. The real struggle is to release a film and recover its money for the producers who have pitched in this project. Like Anurag’s Gulal is one of his finest films, but it didn’t get a decent release, and couldn’t recover a penny for its producers. What is the point of making a great film if it doesn’t reach an audience? It is very hard to find producers for such films. There are five different entities for Bhonsle, and they have come together to make it a reality.
Busan for me is like my home ground, and they treat me like a Korean filmmaker. The restless dark energy is there in my films, and every time it feels like I am going to show a film to my home audience. That’s exciting.
How was Ajji’s journey different from Bhonsle?
It was hard to find backing to make a film that I wanted to make; those struggles don’t change. It is not a happy material or feel good about being alive. The making is always a struggle. To get 120 people on the same page, to be fine with that depressive energy that you are creating because it affects the people is no doubt satisfying but not a happy experience. I push my cast and crew to feel what the characters are feeling. They don’t emerge happy people. They need therapy. I don’t need normal people but warriors who really want to see the film made. So my every film is a war, and every person who works on my films is a warrior.
What comes next from you?
I have six ready scripts. But I am focusing on my novel right now. I was working on it when Ajji was greenlit and then when I started working on it again last year, Bhonsle was on track. My novel is my priority. It is a young adult fiction novel; it is for older children. I enjoy putting my politics in stories for children. As adults, we have set ideas. Children, on the other hand, are open to new ideas. I can have deep, engaging conversations with them. They ask the right questions. They keep me on my toes, and I have to be honest with my writing and research.
As a graphic artist, I am working on a follow-up show of my first solo show in Kolkata. I work on all the posters and publicity material for all my short films. My heart lies in a lot of things. I have different kinds of scripts, but the ones that got greenlit were all dark ones. I have made a short film El’ayichi that was a comedy, and I will surely make another one, but it won’t be a rom-com, but a black comedy.