Former journalist Devashish Makhija makes short films, writes children’s books and has written the script for several movies. His latest full-length feature, “Ajji” (Grandmother), is the dark tale of an old woman who sets out to avenge the rape of her granddaughter.
Makhija tells Reuters why “Ajji” is about urban privilege and how the making of the film took a toll on his health.
Q: One of the big themes that emerge out of “Ajji” is urban privilege. Why was that important?
A: I don’t know if you have seen my short films, but I do this in all my stories. Not only because I feel guilty being born into a middle-class family and having three meals a day, but because I have actively travelled in tribal areas. When I came to Mumbai, I stayed in a slum for the first two years. I have actively tried to understand inequality, because inequality manifests in injustice. The law, though it says it is equal for all, everyone cannot access it. In all my stories, I try to remind those who have a little privilege that you are having it easy and there is someone out there who is not.
Q: How did you end up living in a slum?
A: I am from Calcutta. I was a journalist for a bit, in advertising for a bit, and I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. I had a few friends who knew videography and they said, “Come here”. I came to Mumbai and lived in a slum rehabilitation colony. I didn’t have a choice – I didn’t have too much money. My mum had just passed and I had walked away from life as I knew it. Living there, I started questioning my life as it had been up until then.
The first film I worked on was “Black Friday”. Even during the research of that film, we worked in the ghettos like Behrampada, Navpada. We lived in those areas for days and that just set me on a journey I couldn’t turn back from.
I have taken it upon myself to put these people in all my stories – to tell stories about them because they are not represented in the mainstream.
I could have made “Ajji” more arthouse than it actually is. But somewhere in its story-telling, I tried to make it accessible. I tried to keep the thrill and drama going because I want the mainstream to watch it so that they will think about the other sections of society.
Q: What have you learned about the “other sections”?
A: There’s nothing that I learned from them. The more time I spend in strata and milieus that I don’t belong to, the more I learn about us. The fact that we take too much for granted. We feel wronged about being shortchanged while buying a pair of shoes. And over there is a grandmother whose granddaughter had her life taken from her as she knew it. She will never be the same again. That level of shortchange doesn’t compare to this. There is such a dichotomy and we understand life at such a different level… we operate at such a different frequency.
Q: Does it frustrate you as a film-maker that we don’t see too many of these subjects in the mainstream?
A: No, it doesn’t. And I try and not be arrogant about it. This film, even though it was made at a frighteningly low budget of 1.2 crores (12 million rupees), is still one point two crores, the kind of money I will never see at one go in my lifetime. And I am using someone else’s money to make my film. If someone is giving you money, they don’t want you to hold a mirror to them. They want to escape somewhere else. I get that and I have no sour grapes about that.
Q: How did you come up with the character of Ajji, the protagonist in your film?
A: Ajji was a response to a lot of things, (like) the constant reportage of rape after Nirbhaya. After a point, the film goes beyond rape and revenge. It is about all these inequalities. I had an idea about the most unlikely candidate in a family who would go out and do something about this. And the answer was the grandmother. And we made it even harder for her – we gave her arthritis, we made her live in a milieu where the patriarchy is so systemic that you don’t even realise it’s there until something gets out of hand. The truth of rape-revenge is so universal that I knew that if I make it dramatic enough, I’ll have the audience. The question was – how do I throw in all the other things that I wanted to talk about. That is how Ajji emerged.
Q: Your villain is completely despicable. Did he have to be that way for the film to work?
A: That’s a fair question. But like I said, in that milieu, the patriarchy is 5,000 years old. I was trying to distill that thought process into a person. Dhawale is not a person, but a thought process, and because it is so powerful, he had to be that way.
Q: You said that the making of the film affected your health.
A: (Pauses). I finally feel ready to talk about it. All of last year, during the making of the film, I started hating on my own masculinity. I was in prep in September last year when I started urinating blood. I was in severe pain and thought I wouldn’t be able to shoot. A doctor at the Hinduja Hospital thought it was prostate cancer. I shot on medication and as I went into post-production, I started healing myself. I met a few alternate healers who told me that I was hating on my own masculinity and the prostate gland is really the seat of the male hormone. In retrospect, I think in the making of the film, I sort of went through what Manda (the granddaughter) did. I could feel what Manda was feeling, what Ajji was feeling, because I was in so much pain, and it probably manifested on screen.