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In Devashish Makhija's Joram, a world ravaged

Devashish Makhija on his new film, Joram, which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and his journey as a director

Devashish Makhija during the making of 'Joram'
Devashish Makhija during the making of 'Joram'

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Rage has followed Devashish Makhija his whole life, from Kolkata to his new film, Joram.  

“The only preoccupation I am conscious of is my political and social rage,” the 44-year-old director of Oonga (2013), Ajji (2017) and Bhonsle (2018) says. “The starting point of all my films is rage, then everything else starts to pile on layer by layer.” 

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His fourth feature, Joram, follows Jharkhandi tribal Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee), a Mumbai construction worker who has to escape to his village Jhinpidi with his baby daughter Joram, a word, Makhija says, represents the “legacy of nature, of sustainability, of the feminine energy that births the future”. Dasru had once been part of the Naxalite struggle against government-backed mining corporations. 

Those hunting Dasru include Mumbai policeman Ratnakar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) and Jharkhandi politician Phulo Karma (Smita Tambe). Ratnakar is initially non-committal but his worldview changes as he goes deep into the heart of Dasru’s ravaged homeland. Karma, driven by righteous anger, has a score to settle.

Joram premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Big Screen Competition last month. Previously, Ajji and Bhonsle were screened at the festival. Bankrolled by Zee Studios, with Anupama Bose from Makhijafilm as producer, the aesthetic and production of Joram straddles a fine line between arthouse and mainstream. 

“Zee Studios has broken some myths for me,” Makhija says. “I never expected in this lifetime that I will find a big, mainstream studio to not only see value in Joram but also allow it to have a festival run.” 

Joram is joined at the hip with Makhija’s first feature, Oonga, which also explores tensions between tribals and mining activities. Makhija’s short film Cycle (2021) is also set around these issues. Common between Joram and his Mumbai-set features Ajji and Bhonsle are recurring themes of the oppressed fighting back, displacement politics, and the bond between an adult and a child. 

Some of Makhija’s concerns are conscious, some subterranean. Joram’s roots go all the way to Kolkata which he left for Mumbai in 2002, after his mother died from cancer. His father, who partially inspired Bajpayee’s titular character in Bhonsle, stayed back, until he died in 2018. In Kolkata, Makhija had worked as a journalist, graphic designer, advertising professional. He even had a rock band. Filmmaking offered the chance to combine all his interests and Makhija started off as researcher-assistant director on Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday. At one point, he spent over three years working on an animated film for Yash Raj Films and Walt Disney. When Roadside Romeo, another animation feature tanked, Makhija’s project was sacrificed. 

More heartbreak followed. Makhija had written the land conflict-themed Bhoomi for cinematographer-director Avik Mukhopadhyay. When Bhoomi too got shelved after 85% of shooting, the ex-journalist, frustrated, left Mumbai and travelled Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh with journalist Javed Iqbal, who reports on tribal issues, and documentary filmmaker Faiza Khan. “I came back completely altered,” Makhija recalls. “I decided I wouldn’t tell any stories but these.” 

Joram moves like a slow-burn thriller as the narrative shifts from Mumbai’s underbelly to the jungles, and, finally, dystopian mines of Jharkhand. Bajpayee’s haunting performance imbues Joram with the disquiet the actor carried in Bhonsle, where he played a retired policeman trying to do the right thing amidst xenophobic zeal in a Mumbai chawl. 

Central to both films is the idea of displacement, a feeling that never left Makhija. He was born in Kolkata to Sindhi parents who came from Pakistan to India during Partition. In Kolkata, Makhija couldn’t get films made in Bengali as the city’s mostly Marwari producers didn’t trust him with Bengali stories. Mumbai posed a similar challenge.  “When I was researching for Black Friday, the local parties were rabid,” Makhija says. “I was made to feel like an outsider all the time. I would have to deal with people constantly telling me I don’t belong here and I should go back to where I came from. Do I go back to Pakistan? I don’t belong there either.” 

Makhija transferred his angst into new milieus he discovered, chiefly, the Mumbai underbelly, and India’s mining zones, all the while, attempting to subvert elements that annoy him in mainstream cinema. For example, a cruel situation in Joram has local Jharkhandi cops organising a song-and-dance show for Ratnakar. What could have been an “item song” in a Prakash Jha film, Makhija says, becomes a “launda naach” scene where the only tribal among them is debased further. 

“I can’t stand romanticisations,” Makhija says. “Romanticisation of struggle, for example. I had to live on just vada pav and chai for years which destroyed my health. Whatever money I had, I spent to make two short films between January and February in 2020 and in March, I had 835 rupees in my account as the lockdown began.” 

Another romanticisation Makhija cannot relate to is the hero who will fight. In Joram, Bajpayee plays Dasru as a scared, paranoid person.  

“When I had travelled in these tribal areas, some of these tribals were so fatalistic that they had accepted that their land will be snatched and they can’t do anything,” Makhija says. “Majority of people are not born to fight. They want to go through life quietly without having to confront anybody or anything. If thrust into confrontation, they become quiet, withdrawn, mumbly. Our macho patriotic films celebrate aggression. I wanted to question that.” 

The film is also determinedly laconic. “I find dialogue the weakest, most theatre-like element of cinema,” Makhija says. “I write scripts as much as possible based on image, sound and character. To not use dialogue as a crutch requires time and all my screenplays take me years to finish.” 

As in all Makhija films, Joram’s strengths include attention to detail across costume, make-up, location and production design. The construction site Dasru is seen working at was found in the suburbs: “a place with no safety protocols because I wanted to show a world which doesn’t care about the people creating a concrete building.”

Other locations include the town Chaibasa and iron ore mines in Gua, both in Jharkhand. The latter features prominently in the striking climax, which throws us straight into the machinic destruction of what was once alive and green.

The dialogue by Jharkhandi characters is in a mix of several dialects and Hindi. The jewelry, tattoos and costumes are drawn from several tribes. “As in Cycle, we mixed and matched the jewelry of different tribes such as Dangaria Kandha and Paraja,” Makhija explains. The cast, besides Tannishtha Chatterjee and Rajshri Deshpande in cameos, includes a host of tribals, some of whom are non-actors workshopped by National School of Drama graduate Bhumika Dube. 

Among his gestating projects is an adaption of his short story By/Two, which appeared in the 2012 collection Mumbai Noir. A multi-disciplinary artist, Makhija has written short fiction (the anthology Forgetting) and the novel Oonga, which he first made as a film. He has written graphic poetry and children’s picture books. 

Makhija is recalibrating his artistic journey now. “Earlier, I used to create art constantly and not a day went by without working at least 10 hours,” Makhija reflects. “I used to think the artistic life is an exalted pursuit because I have no deep desire for materialistic pleasure. But in the last few years, I realised even having the arrogance to want your name on your art is like material possession. It’s a base pursuit. My hunger for work was just my ego. And after Joram, I am not going to be on the same journey because this film made me confront some deep questions about myself.” 

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