Synopsis – Chaos, violence and fear erupts when East Indian workers hit a checkpoint during a COVID-19 lockdown that restricts travel.
My Take – Films based on true stories usually tend to hit close, however, rarely have I seen a Hindi film hit so hard emotionally and figuratively. Unsurprising as this marks the latest from Anubhav Sinha, who in his second innings of sorts has become one of the finest contemporary filmmakers to represent Hindi cinema.
Here, director Sinha, along with co-writers Saumya Tiwari and Sonali Jain, head back to the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in India and showcases a powerful and impactful depiction of the horrors of the countrywide lock down. High on shock value, it makes your heart ache seeing the hardships and humiliation that thousands of migrants went through during the pandemic, and reminds us of the failures of the Indian government’s management.
Understandably, this is a difficult watch as it comes too close to the actual trauma of the lock down for comfort, yet, it deserves applause for making the viewers question, their own system of rights, justice, privileges and their compromised existence. Shot in stark black and white, the film is intense, unrelenting, thought-provoking, challenging, and most importantly symbolizes how dated the ways of thinking and behavior of people continues to be.
Set largely on the outskirts of Delhi, near a highway town, Tejpur, adjacent to a deserted resort and mall, the story follows Surya Kumar Singh Tikas (Rajkummar Rao), a young cop who is made in charge of the check post, by his superior Shiv Yadav (Ashutosh Rana), at one of the state borders that’s now closed.
Confident that he deserves the job, Surya realizes how unprepared he was when thousands of migrant workers from villages neighboring Delhi start walking towards their home, jobless and without support to survive during the first year of the pandemic.
While Ram Singh (Aditya Shrivastava) who is Surya’s subordinate but clearly doesn’t want to make things easy for him. He thankfully has Renu Sharma (Bhumi Pednekar), a health worker and his secret girlfriend, to help and support him.
Among the migrants on the other side of the barricading, there’s Geetanjali (Dia Mirza) from the privileged class in her Fortuner, who doesn’t flinch an eyelid when the driver Kanaiya (Sushil Pandey) offers to bribe the cops to let them cross the border, mainly as she aims to get her daughter from her hostel before her ex at any cost.
Then, there’s Balram Trivedi (Pankaj Kapur), a former watchman, who only wants to save his ailing brother and help the fellow passengers in the bus get some food from the nearby closed mall. He insists he won’t steal but would pay for it.
There’s also a young girl carrying her alcoholic father on a bicycle. Amid all this, Vidhi Tripathi (Kritika Kamra), a TV journalist who is covering all this from angles that she can see, or at times, through her cameraman’s lens.
At 114 minutes, the film neither wastes time building the premise nor its core characters. It sets itself apart from other COVID-19 dramas by also being an effective contained thriller set in a secluded police checkpoint near a mall. Taking a scalpel to the caste system, here, director Anubhav Sinha exposes how sub-castes and other divisions stamp out solidarity. As everyone at this checkpoint is blaming each other.
The film tells the story through a lens that captures the reactions of the have-nots to the pandemic. It is quite a fresh perspective to see the boundaries and quest to cross them as a yet another partition. Because it was. The civilized system turned the migrants into workers but never cared about them on doomsday. The boundary is more mental than physical, and the attempt is to bridge it.
What works in director Sinha’s favor is how he chooses to place the story written by him. He depicts police barbarity, state indifference and the crushing weight of poverty without much of a plot and enough emotional force. There is passion and compassion here, and director Sinha’s film brings home what poverty and desperation mean, and conversely what love and humanity mean.
The film also showed a lot of messages that give it a highlight frame, for example, rumors spreading through WhatsApp, the caste system and the inter-cast couple, how poor people are treated by privileged citizens and government and its workers, how Muslims were looked down upon and discriminated as the cause of the spread of the virus across the borders of the states by not maintaining social distancing and in-person engagement.
However, some portions did appear excessive. For instance, I didn’t understand the context of ingesting a lovemaking scene in the first half of the film. Yes, it was important to distinctly underline the class divide in their relationship, but there were ample strong scenes later in the film through which the point could be well conveyed. The sex scene could have been avoided.
Performance wise, both Rajkumar Rao and Bhumi Padnekar are in top form with their dialect, body language, confidence and the way they emote on screen. Pankaj Kapur is a seasoned performer and does his best to bring out the evil of this setup in words. He is used as the voice of the ones waiting at the boundary but is also stereotyped in many ways.
Ashutosh Rana and Aditya Shrivastav add gravitas to the narrative, while Kritika Kamra and Diya Mirza lend good support. On the whole, ‘Bheed’ is a powerful lockdown tale that is intense, unrelenting and thought-provoking throughout.
Directed – Anubhav Sinha
Starring – Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Dia Mirza
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 114 minutes