Culture & Society

Devashish Makhija’s ‘Joram’ is Part Survival Drama, Part Psychological Thriller

After its debut at IFFR Rotterdam and a worldwide festival run, Joram released on December 8.

Screengrab from ‘Joram’
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This isn’t the first time that Devashish Makhija has led us into a forest. In ‘Oonga’, his incredible young adult novel, we followed the thap thap thap of the little Dongria Kandha boy’s footsteps, as he makes his way down a forest trail. In his children’s book, ‘We are the Dancing Forest’, we visited the “tall tumbling trees” to discover that “we are the forest, and the forest is us”. In the award-winning ‘Cycle’, his masterful short film, we enter the jungle, phone camera in hand, bearing witness. In ‘Joram’, his new full-length feature film, which is many things all at once, to borrow from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s genre-bending film, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, we enter the forest once more; this time, in search of the paalash flower swaying in the breeze, and chance upon an idyllic opening scene.

There is Vaano (played by the skilful Tannishtha Chatterjee), a young Adivasi woman, in a moment of abandon on a swing suspended off a tree, and there is Dasru, (played by the powerhouse of talent, Manoj Bajpayee) who is watching, from the ground, smiling at her gentle teasing at his terrible singing. She sings, in an open, sonorous voice; he joins her. We will never return to this moment again, but this moment will never be forgotten.

The swing abruptly goes out of frame. The camera still sways, for a few moments after, much like unsteady footsteps off a boat after choppy waters, its sight set on the trunk of the tree, its bark close enough to touch. The scene cuts, and with almost brutal abruptness, we’re wrenched away to follow the weight of a sack of cement on the protagonist’s back. He’s at a construction site. In a city. The monochromatic harshness, the machines, the dust in the air; it feels like it is settled on my skin, like I can taste it in my mouth. 

I didn’t know there was such a thing as film tactility. Of course, film is an audio-visual experience, but sometimes, as I discovered, its images and sounds appeal to more than only our eyes and ears. From what I read, ‘some films, and some filmmakers, find ways of activating our sense of touch. Such images are called haptic: they seem to turn our eyes into fingers and thus generate a tactile experience of the visuals’. Turning my eyes into fingers. I have never felt this more acutely than I felt in ‘Joram’ and perhaps, if I look back into all of Makhija’s films, in ‘Ajji’. The memory of moments so visceral, that I actually had to investigate if there was a name for this sensation. 

To return to the story, as it unfolds, Muchaki, (played by the memorable Jacky Bhavsar), a character I will return to, poignantly remarks “adjust kar lete hain, Sir” so here we see Vaano and Dasru, adjusting, trying. A recalibration, if you will, from the spaciousness of the village to backbreaking labour and cramped shanty living. But even in that, there is hope, there is song. ‘Jhume re mahua ke phool, jhume re palase phool,’ a secret language of remembrance between them.

This tenderness manifests in Dasru buying a saree out of his meagre earnings so Vaano can fashion it into a swing for herself, only to return to a horrific crime that forces him to flee, baby Joram in his arms. This sets off the desperate, thrilling chase for survival that takes him from the city, back to the village, through a series of nail-biting events, in a single-minded attempt to protect his child and himself. 

Through a heart-stopping train sequence, and then on to trucks and lorries, we follow Dasru, while hot on his heels are Ratnakar, played by Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub, who delivers a quietly powerful performance as the beleaguered cop assigned on the case and separately, and the steely Phulo Karma, played with chilling competence by Smita Tambe. She is an Adivasi politician on a mission, and her constant companion is her assistant, Bidesi, a role enacted with sensitivity and nuance by Megha Mathur. 

In ‘Joram’, Manoj Bajpai brings a believable physicality to the role that makes him indistinguishable from Dasru. There is vulnerability and fear, the heaviness in his heart reflecting in his shadowed eyes, and yet, through his travails, he retains the agility and stealth that is perhaps a residue of a life left behind. The moments with ‘Joram’ in the few quieter interludes are particularly tender, especially when he is singing to her, a flower tucked behind his own ear, and hers. In that moment, there is only love, and it is to Bajpayjee’s credit as an actor that he can shapeshift so effortlessly through the course of a single film.

To me, a lot of the art in Makhija’s films lies the peripheral, or perhaps the seemingly peripheral. Rajshri Deshpande is Ratnakar’s wife, Mukta, and speaks from the depth of her eyes. We see her only through a mobile screen and even in that limited space, there are volumes of unsaid emotion that she is able to convey. Her eyes speak of her worry, her tiredness, perhaps loneliness, her aggravation at his absence, and yet, there is little that she actually says. The subtext is for us, the audience, to unravel. 

The commonality that runs through most of his films is the judicious use of dialogue, almost to a fault, but which delivers incredible spaciousness. When an expression, a movement or even the framing of the scene will suffice, words become superfluous. There is a sense that without the crutch of words, we are able to feel the unadulterated language of the moment, in all its purity. Only, one has to pay attention. 

We see this starkly in Bhonsle, where Manoj Bajpayee’s character is so finely etched, that it spurred an outpouring of inspired art from fans nationwide, and yet, Bhonsle barely speaks. In Joram, Ratnakar, when he comes to the village, first sits in the side car as directed. As he gains greater clarity and confidence, he eschews it to ride pillion and finally, as the action leads to the final denouement, he is firmly in the rider’s seat. The relaying of a failed mission is only a series of phones ringing on silent sequentially, down the unofficial chain of command. Clearly, there is a language that Makhija speaks with admirable fluency that lies outside of words.

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Without a deluge of dialogue, characters also reveal themselves organically. A single sentence may hold an entire facet of a personality which slowly comes into greater clarity, somewhat akin to an image appearing on a dark room photo paper. When a cornered Dasru throws a question at Ratnakar at a pivotal moment through the chase, wanting to know if he guarantees his safety if he turns himself in, Ratnakar, without resorting to disingenuous promises, answers with poignant honesty, “I will try my best”, knowing full well that powers far greater than him are at play. This moment of inconvenient integrity perhaps mirrors the uncompromising idealism of the writer/director himself.

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Dasru returns to his village, and in an unforgettable scene, walks through the lands where Vaano and he first roamed, now almost unrecognisable; a masterclass in the political expressed through the personal. 

Ratnakar, hot on his heels, encounters the enigmatic Muchaki, who has been detailed to transport him to the police station on a motorbike with a sidecar. The bike with the sidecar took me of course to Cheepatakadumpa, a brilliant short film, where the three female protagonists are on a similar bike with a sidecar, but their mission is of a somewhat different nature. As an aside, that film was probably the most out-of-left-field offering from Makhija and enjoyable in a delightfully surprising way. To reframe Blake, “Did he who made ‘Agli Baar’, make thee?’ 

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Sandeep Shikhar as the rambunctious Sub Inspector Khatri, the man ostensibly in charge of the local ‘thana’ is almost comical in his bluster and loquaciousness, in sharp contrast to Ratnakar’s brooding presence, and the sthirta that is his persona. Here, Makhija subverts the item song, a mainstream cinema staple, and as the entertainment of the night unfolds, it turns into a deeply unsettling exploration of patriarchy, objectification of the feminine, and its many intersections. While this is only one instance, through the film, gender roles are questioned and challenged as both men and women inhabit spaces that are generally proscribed to the other. 

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Absurdities run rife through the film as well; a network tree, the determined obsequiousness of the sub inspector’s sidekick running at top speed with an umbrella to keep up with his boss, the comic scrambling to get a bunch of inebriated policemen ready and out after the excesses of the night, the free ‘mineral water’ in the village; each adding levity and depth to the narrative in equal measure. The wry humorous interludes also serve as effective foil to the dramatic action of the chase.

Phulo Karma and her trusted Bidesi are also back at the village. They too are tracking Dasru, but in an interesting psychological play, Phulo isn’t only tracking him with information from sources that Bidesi relays. She is tracking him as one of her own, through her instinctual understanding of what his next move might be. The paradox of this intimate connection between the hunter and the hunted is hard to miss. 

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As in all his work, ‘Joram’ is rich in poetic idiom and symbolism. The sari that was to be a swing for Vaano is a sling holds and protects her baby, bringing her back to the land that she longed for. Dasru, Ratnakar and Phulo all stop at different times to drink from the same handpump; its muddied waters flowing through them all. Phulo’s heaviness in her gait, her stance, the holding of trauma and rage and sadness in her is palpable. Ratnakar, trapped in a web of political manoeuvrings and personal vendetta finds his makeshift room at the police station is a prison cell. 

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An unexpected change in pace draws us into an intimate exploration of Phulo Karma’s face, another haptic image where her humanness, etched in every line and crevice seems close enough to touch. Alone and despairing in her isolation, Phulo reaches out for Bidesi’s company in a moment of deep vulnerability. It’s only a moment, but Mathur as Bidesi brings an accomplished authenticity to her role, as she responds.

The politics in the film is muted, but omnipresent.

In some ways perhaps the film is a trojan horse for Makhija’s politics and the kind of conversations he believes we need to have. A group of Adivasis gather to sing ‘Zameen nahin denge, gaon nahin denge hamara,’ (we won’t give our lands, we won’t give our villages). Atop a lorry among farmers who are now forced to give up their traditional way of life to become cogs in the industrial machine, Dasru asks why anyone doesn’t fight. A woman’s voice answers, “fighting will fill our soul, but what of our bellies?” 

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The politics is evident in Dasru sitting under a plaque that carries the words of the Constitution, in the irony of a sign that proclaims “deforestation is a punishable offence” as the construction of a highway is underway and a few scenes later, we find Dasru cradling his baby amongst felled trees. 

It’s in Pragati, or development, seen everywhere, while the pillage of the land continues unchecked. It is also in an unexpected name that we encounter among the Adivasis, Samson, possibly shorthand to indicate the role of Christian missionaries who have been working in these areas. As one of many interesting reversals in the film, unlike in the Bible, it is not Samson who is betrayed, but he is the one who betrays, and again, there too Makhija presents the choicelessness of a populace caught between law enforcement on one side and the Maoists or the armed rebels on the other. 

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There are other threads that may well be stories on their own ― the way the media can be manipulated and weaponised, the misuse of the law to the point of absurdity, or the network tree replacing the reverence for nature.

As Muchaki contemplates his own and Dasru’s compulsions and choicelessness, in a moment of quiet helplessness, Dasru murmurs, “wherever I go, there is only silence”. In Dasru we find an everyday man, combating forces far greater than himself, forced into choices with his back against the wall, and dictated, not by his own moral compass, but by the pure instinct of survival. 

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The film forces one to ponder―how far will I go to protect what’s mine? A child, a family, a land? And then, if there is a taking away, by violence, how far will I go to avenge my loss? To what end, for how long, and where will the cycle of violence stop? These are recurrent themes in many of his works and while there are no easy answers, each work seems to delve deeper or present a fresh nuance or perspective that makes us question our core beliefs and closely held positions.

An interesting observation is that while both the hunter and the hunted suffer terrible loss, only one of them is seeking retributive justice, and the other, survival. Perhaps under similar provocations, responses differ based on social capital and agency. Would the powerless behave exactly like the powerful if the tables were turned? Would we, could we all be equally violent under the right conditions, or for reasons that matter to us? Are there moral absolutes or only degrees of righteousness, impacted by a complex web of circumstance? 
Even in what ostensibly seems like a choice, the propelling factor may actually be the opposite, choicelessness. Whether it is migration to the cities from the villages, an erstwhile farmer having to don a police uniform, a desperate man doing what it takes to stay alive, or indeed, a parent processing grief over a dead child until every inch of her is only rage. Another concurrent theme that runs through many of Makhija’s films is the cyclic nature of things, of patterns that repeat. In one scene, Phulo Karma, whose name in Hindustani could loosely translate to the flowering of fate, says “chakka chalta rehne chahiye”, (the wheel must keep spinning), and for better or worse, as we witness in the cycle of violence in the world today, it does. 

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Many things in the film are not what they seem. Dasru in the city is not what he seems, neither is Phulo. Pragati that translates to development is everywhere, on hoardings, on crates, in Phulo’s televised claim about shopping malls, but in reality there is only forcible displacement, the poisoning of rivers and taking away of land. And then there is the willing suspension of belief in the gyrating, dancing entertainer who whips the crowd into an animalistic frenzy. Contradictions abound; the seductress who seemingly holds sway over a mob of dancing men is also in danger from them. Conversely, Ratnakar and Muchaki are also not what they seem.

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The cinematic beauty of his films first struck me when I watched ‘Ajji’; art in the midst of squalor, rising from ordinariness. We see that repeatedly in this film. ‘Joram’ suspended in a makeshift cradle over her parents prone bodies. The landscape, as Dasru returns. Its Phulo’s hands as she sits down to eat alone, the empty sadness in her eyes. It’s the boat, the yellow of the lantern, the indigo of the skies and the play of light and shadow. It’s Dasru’s eyes, his helplessness and the silhouette of a man walking away.

The music and sound design in ‘Joram’ not only complements, but co-creates several scenes. For instance, in a moment of particularly horrific violence, we don’t see the action, we hear it; the sound of the weapon connecting with, and ripping out, of flesh, over and over again. It made my skin crawl in a way that a visual may not have. Perhaps we do live more in our imaginations than in reality.

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The cinematic brilliance particularly shines forth in a scene where Ratnakar is in hot pursuit of Dasru, his flashlight swinging wildly in desperate determination as he gains on him. Dasru is in sight, until he isn’t. I remember thinking as I watched it, that I could watch the entire film as a build-up, for this particular scene. As a frustrated Ratnakar comes to a halt, staring into the darkness, the sounds of pursuit surrender to the sounds of the forest, as if the forest, Dasru’s forest, had swallowed him up. 

Finally, as the denouement nears, the haunting music propels the action, and all forces reach a point of convergence. We are now in the belly of the mines. And within that hellish landscape, with monstrous land movers pillaging the earth, within its dusty desolation, a naked tree stands Christ-like, its arms outstretched. Leafless, the skeleton of its branches is all of nature, sacrificed on the cross of development. As mounds of earth are being churned, the sun high in the sky, there is no refuge, nor shelter. It is this dystopian landscape that forces the mind to travel back in time to when Makhija first led us into the forest, to Vaano and Dasru, the swing suspended on the tree, and snatches of a song, their song, ‘jhume re mahua ke phool, jhume re palashe phool’. In that memory and all that has transpired since, there is a discovery of deep sadness, for whichever way the end will unravel, something of beauty, of innocence has been snatched away forever. 

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It is perhaps this aspect of Makhija’s filmmaking that evokes that early tactility that I felt, that has often transported me into the heart and sinew of a moment. It is not only touch, but a getting-under-the-skin-ness that keeps his characters and their stories alive within me. I have often returned to the stories in ‘Forgetting’, to passages in ‘Oonga’, to ‘Agli Baar’, to ‘Cycle’, as I will, to ‘Joram’, and in each revisiting, there will undoubtedly be something to discover that I have missed, or that moves me in a new way; and that is the power and magic of Devashish Makhija’s storytelling.

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