Devashish Makhija on ‘Joram’: ‘Politics and arts should be allowed to cross-pollinate’

As ‘Joram' continues to find audiences, writer-director Devashish Makhija talks about how he discovered his voice and the growing disenchantment of Hindi cinema with political themes

Updated - May 18, 2024 04:47 pm IST

Published - May 15, 2024 01:37 pm IST

Devashish Makhija

Devashish Makhija

At a time when filmmakers filter out their political thoughts, Devashish Makhija comes across as a straight shooter. The darling of film festivals, this critic’s choice urges the audience to vote wisely from public platforms. Makhija’s films have the rare ability to disturb even the apparent target audience as he asks prickly questions rather than take sides. He garnered attention with Ajji (2017), a twisted take on an old, feeble woman’s revenge, and went on to shine with Bhonsle (2018) and Joram (2023), where again seemingly faint voices took on the popular narrative. Starting with his debut feature, Oonga (2013), Makhija has questioned the need to disrupt the sustainable environment of Adivasiswithout striking a condescending tone.

Manoj Bajpayee with Devashish Makhija

Manoj Bajpayee with Devashish Makhija | Photo Credit: Punit Reddy

“We either romanticise or criminalise tribals in our films. Both ways it counts as propaganda. I have taken a humanist stance,” says Makhija on the sidelines of the recently concluded Habitat Film Festival where Joram was the closing film.

Edited excerpts:

You are one of the rare filmmakers of this generation whose films have a political stance, particularly on issues of migration and immigrants. How did you find your voice?

.  Perhaps, it is because I am the survivor of a riot. On December 6, 1992, when I was 12, our rented accommodation in Kolkata was almost attacked by Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. Until then, I didn’t know the difference between religions because from cycling and karate to cricket, I did everything with the children of my Muslim neighbours. That night as the news of the Babri demolition spread, riots broke out in different parts of the country. If you put it in a film, it will sound contrived, but as the rioters were about to climb onto our building, an Air Force patrol vehicle stopped and the tension dissipated.

The next day, when the curfew was relaxed, I walked down to the same shops to buy eggs and bread. But my Muslim friends and I looked at each other differently. Something had shifted inside me. Had we been actually attacked, it could have gone somewhere else. As it remained a thought, it left me confused. I started pestering my friends, family, and relatives that who decides who is baharwala (outsider). My parents were Sindhi migrants from what became West Pakistan. They had seen their sibling die during the long walk to Kolkata because of malnutrition. Those who came 50 years back had become insiders but those who had come 20 years after were not. I started raising these questions in my school projects and essays.

When I shifted to Mumbai in 2003, my first project was to do research work for Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday. It was the time when Hindi signboards were being changed into Marathi. When I would ask questions to the police officials in Hindi, they would reply in Marathi. I felt angry as it was unconstitutional. All this stayed in me and has found a reflection in Bhonsle and Joram. Both reflect on the outsider-insider binary from different perspectives.

Beneath the thriller, Joram questions the development model that successive governments have offered to the original inhabitants...

The major question I am trying to raise is who decides what is development.  If it is dictated by greed then it is a very difficult conversation because then someone has to pay the price for someone else’s greed. Then it is not about development. These are some of the implicit questions that I am trying to raise, but as a subtext and used the sexy tropes of a thriller in an almost mathematical manner like a father-daughter emotion, three chase sequences, etc.

Don’t you think a section might call you anti-corporate because capitalism has some amount of greed built into it?

If it is about profit maximisation, there has to be something built into it that ensures equitable distribution. The minute it is greed, it is about the interests of a minority for which the majority has to pay. The model is flawed then and I will question the absence of justice. I am not anti-corporate, I am anti-greed.

How do you see the relationship between politics and cinema?

The best cinemas in the world are those that have found the balance between the two and have allowed the cross-pollination between politics and arts.

Do you think current mainstream Hindi filmmakers are doing this job?

Most of them, in their creative voices, have become apolitical. Yes, when they go home they do become political. There was a time when he had Manoj Kumar and Yash Chopra who wore their politics on their sleeve. The last time I saw politics being worn on a sleeve artistically was in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. Every time I start a film, I show Garm Hava to the teamIf film is the medium of the director, film theatre is the medium of the star. The clout and the eyeballs that the star brings with him ensure that the film gets made. I am lucky to have Manoj Bajpayee by my side. 

You seem to be building a parallel career as a novelist...

The cinematic ideas that I have don’t get greenlit because not many production houses are ready to discuss what I want to say. Writing is an outlet because English literature is going below the radar. I am about to sign a deal with a big publisher for my first adult novel which I have been trying to write for many years. It is the most political thing that I am writing. It is a fictional account that takes off from what I experienced on that December night in 1992 seen from the perspective of two 12-year-old boys. 

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