Filmmaker Devashish Makhija knows that his hard-hitting film, Ajji, is not your run-of-the-mill cinema that people or even festivals would clamour for. Despite that, the film has had many festival outings, including Busan, MAMI, Singapore, etc.
It was recently screened at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. Talking about his dark take on a fairy tale, Devashish says, “There are other films this past year that have been bigger and more consistent festival favourites. What has gone against Ajji sometimes is the fact that it paints a ruthlessly bleak—albeit true—picture of our world. The few festivals that have showcased and celebrated the film must be lauded for not being afraid or intimidated by the extreme nature of the film’s content, and for recognising that perhaps we need such stories to be told this way sometimes.”
Makhija was born and raised in Kolkata, before landing in Mumbai. “I came to Mumbai to see if I could make films. It started with researching and assisting on Black Friday. I was also the chief assistant on Bunty Aur Babli, before being signed to write and direct an animation film for a tie-up between Yash Raj and Disney.
Three years into production, the project was shelved. In the years that followed, almost a dozen films I wrote—and was directing—started, then stopped at different stages, for different reasons,” he says. Oonga, the film that he managed to complete, never released. He finally 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 is in post-production right now,” he recounts.
Like all disturbing socio-political films, Makhija’s first feature Ajji 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 dramatisation,” he says.
The most challenging part was not about finding actors for this film, but finding women who would epitomise/believe in/stand up for the things this film seeks to say. “Each of the actors—and female crew—in the 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’, we formed a ‘feminist army’,” he quips.
On Bhonsle, which happens to be his second with Manoj Bajpayee—first being a short film Taandav—he says: “Bhonsle is roughly a feature-length exploration of the same themes we explored in Taandav. It’s a bigger, broader, more ambitious film than Ajji. We’ve tried to explore some of the more disturbing socio-political issues.” The filmmaker credits Manoj for being the reason for him to embark on and continue his film journey. “Manoj is more than the sum of his parts for me. He had shown faith in me and fought for my freedom when most others were scared to. He and I share something special,” he signs off.