The opening of Joram triggers a clear, propulsive story: construction worker Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee), who has been displaced from his tribal land, is a fugitive from justice. His wife has been killed, and the law—in the form of Bombay cop Ratnakar (Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub)—is chasing him and his baby girl. Devashish Makhija’s thriller pushes Dasru out of the city and into the remaining Indigenous communities on appropriated Adivasi tribal land, gracefully shifting into a character study about colonial violence and the difficulty of finding tribal justice and liberation.
At the 2023 Edinburgh Film Festival, we talked to Makhija about stressing the “political” in political thrillers, as well as navigating today’s Indian film industry as an independent filmmaker.
Projektor: Your film is being seen at a time when Indian cinema is being shared through global Western platforms—like streaming or the Oscars. What’s your perspective on where independent film is currently in India?
Makhija: We often get seen as the country that produces cinema in the Hindi language, but we’ve got at least 28 other languages. There’s Bombay independent cinema, which is what I belong to, then there is Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, Assamese, Marathi, Gujarati, all kinds of independent and commercial cinema. So it’s a complicated question to whittle down to one simplistic answer in the case of India, because we are not homogeneous. We’re strikingly heterogeneous.
When you say the OTT space [“over-the-top” media services offering streaming in India] opened up so the world can access Indian content, it mostly veers towards the mainstream. They’re not independent in spirit. The films that are really independent are having as hard a time reaching audiences as they did 10 to 15 years ago. A lot of the films that won at festivals in India over the last five years won’t be found on any OTT, because OTTs are not buying them.
You’ve worked with Bajpayee three times now, and in Joram, he has the difficult job of playing a very stripped-back character. Was it your prior experience working with him that helped access that elemental type of performance?
Yes, but also Manoj comes with 40 years of working in theater, the mainstream, and arthouse. I call him a tuning fork. You just strike him, and he gives you the note that you require. If I’d met him much earlier, maybe we wouldn’t have had the partnership that we do. He just immerses himself; it’s under the skin. He’s one actor that I’m not directing in every scene. We arrive at a place on set where we know what to do.
It must inspire confidence for others to see that on set.
On set, [and] in the industry. We are working in Bombay, and that city is the financial capital of India. It’s not conducive to art. Trying to make artistic cinema, the only thing you get from all four quarters is pushback. I need a champion like Manoj, who does his mainstream work—he is considered the biggest OTT star right now—and then once a year, he does a film like this, because that gets him the freedom to do what he is good at and what he really enjoys—and brings him the awards. He straddles both worlds. [If] he doesn’t do a film like this, it doesn’t get made.
I noticed these parallels between the Indigenous characters: like Dasru, Ratnakar’s driver has had to adapt to be accepted. They both have to change their realities to survive. What about the shifting, multifaceted nature of survival in the Indigenous narrative appeals to you?
This opens up a Pandora’s box, because my first film Oonga, and a couple of my children’s books and short films have worked with the Indigenous narrative. But I am not Indigenous. Often I get called out for that outsider perspective and appropriation of the Indigenous narrative, so I’m always seeking that dialogue back in India.
When you talk about survival, the Indigenous themselves are thrown off by outsiders only seeing the violence they have to face. I keep saying I’m a work in progress. For 10, 15 years I’ve been researching, traveling these areas and trying to tell the stories. If I was Indigenous, I would have gotten past this narrative way earlier in my storytelling journey, but telling the stories of survivors is me trying to access that narrative in a deeper way.
When a lot of Indigenous tell their own stories, they talk about things that don’t have to do with this because they’re like, “This is a part of our life. The mainstream is trying to take what is ours and trying to strangle our voices. But that’s not all that we are.”
I see [survival] as the first access point. Because the people I make these films for in the cities, all they know is the Adivasi lands are being taken away. So I use that—okay, this is your familiarity, now let me expand it once you’re in. This is me trying to go beyond the survival narrative and open up bigger questions.
You’re gonna think about it because you’re part of the reason it’s happening, and you’re part of the reason it’s not resolving. I need people to be haunted by that.
There’s a great scene where Ratnakar’s driver explains to the cop the history of the tribal region. In terms of pacing, did you always want to have the film cool down for a long stretch?
I hadn’t thought of it consciously, but this film changed form in the edit because of the multiplicity of characters and the kinds of actors I cast. A lot of the local, tribal actors had never faced a camera before. So to make them inhabit the frame in a realistic manner, I was finding their rhythms instead of telling them to follow mine. So the edit revealed a certain pacing and rhythm that I hadn’t pre-planned. My editor, Abhro Banerjee, has done a lot of documentaries. This is his second fiction feature. He played a big part in finding those places where he felt it could slow down.
It’s always interesting to not give a clean, satisfying ending in a thriller; the story within this thriller would not suit that. Was that a conscious decision?
Very. I wrote the script in 2014, it took seven years to find backing. I’m generally very open to changing things around because I need these stories out there. This I was very clear about: if I make [the audience] feel like things tied up neatly at the end, they’re not going to go back home and think about it. They will feel, “That happened to them in that world, I’m exempt.” I’m like, no, you’re gonna think about it because you’re part of the reason it’s happening, and you’re part of the reason it’s not resolving. I need people to be haunted by that. It needed to be open and a little abrupt. You caught a breath and you went back with a breath caught.