It is a deeply personal film that reflects Sinha’s anguish and pain; it is as if the filmmaker has laid bare his bleeding heart
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Writers: Anubhav Sinha, Saumya Tiwari, and Sonali Jain
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Kapur, Bhumi Pednekar, Ashutosh Rana, and others
Bheed starts with a news item that had jolted the entire nation: A group of migrant workers were walking back to their hometowns from Jalna, Maharashtra, and were mowed down by a goods train as the exhausted bunch was sleeping on train tracks. Shot in black and white, the audience is saved from the gory visuals but that only heightens the impact. And it sets the tone for what is to unfold in the next 114 minutes.
It is 2020. The action unfolds mostly at a check post near Tejpur where exhausted migrant laborers trudging to their hometowns are stopped due to the government suddenly deciding to close state borders. Helming this otherwise unimportant checkpost is the newly appointed in-charge Surya Kumar Singh Tikas (played to perfection by Rajkummar Rao). His team is outnumbered and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation. Joining him is his girlfriend, Renu Sharma ((Bhumi Pednekar), a medical intern sent to the spot to test the sick migrants for Covid and tend to them. Then there is the man he reports to, Circle Officer Subhash Yadav (Ashutosh Rana), and Ram Singh (Aditya Shrivastava), a man of a higher caste who is now made to report to him.
As trucks and buses filled with migrant laborers begin to arrive at this checkpoint, which has neither food nor any kind of other basic amenities, tension starts to mount, tempers start to rise. There is caste politics, class discrimination, religious intolerance, a show of power, and a shameless display of privilege. There is misinformation doled out on WhatsApp, there is fear of the unknown, and there is desperation. There is pandemonium and chaos. And suddenly everything reaches the boiling point.
Anubhav Sinha’s recent outing is direct, taut, and stark. A fictional account created from scraps of newspaper headlines that screamed the plight of the migrant workers during the Covid-induced lockdown. There are mentions of the Tablighi Jamaat Covid hotspot news and how that impacted the Muslim population among the migrants and how that spiked Islamophobia across the country. The mass migration also had stories of hope and resilience–one being that of 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari Paswan, who undertook a 1200-km journey on cycle from Sikandarpur in Haryana to Darbhanga in Bihar carrying her ailing father. Jyoti Kumari Paswan becomes the young girl (played brilliantly by Aditi Subedi), cycling her way through the crowd saddled with her alcoholic father (Omkar Das Manikpuri).
In recent years, the director has become known for talking about uncomfortable social and political realities of modern India that question its democratic fabric. He has previously touched upon issues like patriarchy and domestic violence (Thappad), caste discrimination (Article 15), religious extremism (Mulk), and the regional identity of the North East and its contentious relationship with the rest of India (Anek). In Bheed, he is the same filmmaker, but with a more matured handling of things. Unlike his last outing Anek, Bheed is less pretentious (although it becomes preachy in parts) and more poignant.
Like Article 15, Sinha highlights the caste divide prevalent even in modern India but here the gaze is not of the upper caste man of privilege. Instead, here the hero is Surya Kumar Singh Tikas, a Dalit policeman who eventually embraces his caste identity even though at every step he is made aware of his lower rank in the society despite climbing the ranks in the police force. Pitted opposite him is a Brahmin watchman Balram Trivedi, a bigoted patriarch who when faced with the magnitude of the situation goes rogue—although on the other side of the law, when confronted by Tikas, he treats him as a Dalit instead of a man in uniform.
Although in a much-diluted form, like Mulk, Sinha delves into the rising Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims that stops Balram Trivedi from accepting food from members of the Muslim community even amid severe hunger pangs. The nuanced writing also brings to the fore the other side, where amid such a national disaster, only the story of a bus full of Muslim migrants is deemed worthy of a ‘news item’.
Rajkummar Rao is brilliant as Tikas and phenomenal in scenes he shares with
Pankaj Kapur whose performance as Balram Trivedi is a masterclass in nuanced acting. Bhumi Pednekar is a natural and fits into the character with casual ease. Ashutosh Rana and Aditya Srivastava are also effective.
Then there is the Marie Antoinette-like character reeking privilege played by Dia Mirza. She is desperate to reach her daughter who is in a hostel but her motivation is not just motherly instincts but also to beat her estranged husband in the race to get to their daughter. There is also television reporter Vidhi Prabhakar (Kritika Kamra) who is following the goings-on on the ground. She is given a few poignant speeches but these two characters, although played impeccably by the respective actors, are largely wasted.
The writing by Anubhav Sinha, Saumya Tiwari, and Sonali Jain is prudent with some preachy patches. Soumik Mukherjee creates poetry with his camera in stark black and white frames, Atanu Mukherjee’s editing is brisk but the rhythm seems to be hampered by the censor board cuts. Anita Kushwaha’s sound design, Mangesh Dhadke’s background score, and Anurag Saikia’s music is powerful, especially the poignant song Herail Ba, which is instrumental in creating the gut-wrenching experience that is Bheed.