Bollywood star-actor Manoj Bajpayee, who was last seen on the Croisette in 2012 when Anurag Kashyap's rambunctious two-part period gangster thriller premiered in Directors' Fortnight, marked his presence on the sidelines of the 71st Cannes Film Festival for the first-look launch of Devashish Makhija's politically inflected drama "Bhonsle".
The film, coming in the wake of the lauded short "Taandav" and the dark, disturbing rape-themed drama "Ajji", is Makhija's take on the vulnerability of north Indian migrants in the city of Mumbai. It has the makings of another milestone in Bajpayee's much-feted screen acting career.
"It is pointless choosing a film of the kind that one has done before especially in the independent cinema space. There is absolutely no challenge in it," the actor told PTI, explaining why he was drawn to the world of "Bhonsle".
The upcoming film hinges principally on an "undefined relationship" that develops between a retired, terminally ill policeman "who is running away from his loneliness" and a migrant woman who comes to live in his neighbourhood and faces grave threats to her well-being.
The project germinated four-and-a-half years ago. However, the politically sensitive theme of the film scared away prospective producers "when we went around pitching the idea in the industry", Bajpayee said.
So the only alternative was to find several individual producers who would put in small inputs so as to minimise the risk. "The team that eventually emerged is of people who believe in the film completely," said the lead actor who has, on his own part, frequently lent his weight as a star to adventurous movie projects.
What is "Bhonsle" seeking in Cannes? "This is a great platform from where we can let the world know about the film," Bajpayee replied. The film is in the final stages of post-production and its producers are in Cannes to explore sales and marketing prospects.
Bajpayee, who played key roles in recent Bollywood biggies like "Aiyaary" and "Baaghi 2" and has just wrapped up the shoot of the John Abraham-starrer "Satyameva Jayate", sees his buzzy off-mainstream outings as an opportunity to boost his profile on the international festival circuit.
Roles in independent Hindi films have lately seen him don the guise of a gay university professor immersed in his own world of poetry, Lata Mangeshkar and two pegs of whisky a day ("Aligarh"); of an Old Delhi man with a tormented childhood ("Gali Guliyan"); and a father/husband who feels that he has failed his family ("Rukh"). None of these roles was a cakewalk.
"What other characters could have thrown such challenges at an actor. These were demanding yet rewarding roles that called for a great deal of preparation, introspection and questioning. Each helped the actor in me get in touch with newer facets of the craft," Bajpayee said in response to a question about his penchant for complex, conflicted characters in independent cinema.
Asked whether he believes that an actor of his calibre now has more openings than when he started out nearly a quarter-century ago, he said, "You are talking to a person who fought to create this space. After 'Satya', I could have opted to play villains in many films with big Bollywood stars. But I chose to sit at home and bide my time. I waited for the tide to turn."
Wouldn't he be keen to make global moves as an actor? Bajpayee replied, "At least one film of mine each year has been travelling across festivals."
So, as he himself suggests, there is reason to believe that his visibility is on the upswing beyond the shores of India.
"Bhonsle" is another step in that direction and the Cannes market just the right pit-stop.
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