It’s been a crucial couple of weeks for Anubhav Sinha. His new film, Bheed, is releasing in theatres on March 24. But on March 15, the film’s official trailer was made unavailable on YouTube. Headlined by Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar, Bheed — shot in stark black-and-white — revisits the hardships and humiliations of the 2020 migrant crisis in India, when lakhs of daily wage workers and seasonal labourers had to walk back home from big cities during the coronavirus pandemic.
The film’s trailer, which first dropped on March 10, began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address announcing the first phase of the nationwide Covid-19 induced lockdowns, over images of chaos and apathy.
When the trailer reappeared a few days later, the voice-over was replaced. Also gone was a line comparing the scale and devastation of the migrant crisis to something like 1947, when the country was partitioned on religious lines and millions of people were displaced. This added to another confusion; the absence of T-Series and producer-presenter Bhushan Kumar’s names in the film’s trailer and subsequent promos.
Bheed has generated positive pre-release buzz for highlighting an important chapter of India’s recent past. However, the film has also received backlash on social media, with Sinha being accused of sensationalising a mass tragedy and portraying the country’s response in poor light.
In an interview with The Hindu, Sinha—known for Mulk, Article 15, Thappad and Anek—spoke on the various controversies surrounding Bheed and his journey of bringing the film to fruition. Excerpts....
In May, 2020, you tweeted an image of migrant labourers clambering onto a truck with the caption ‘paap lagega’. What moved you about the unfolding situation?
It was devastating. These images that were pouring in of the migrants. And the fact that no one thought about them; not even you and I. I’m not just talking about the government. We presumed it was the migrants’ problem. We thought that their immunity was high, and because they are the labour class, they are used to hard work and going hungry. And the worst news was that they came back at the same price, because they don’t have a choice I suspect. That was the rudest shock.
At a policy level, do you think the vulnerability of the migrant labourers was taken into consideration in the immediate response to the pandemic?
Did we think of a gas cylinder for these children and women on the footpath? They are not a part of the plan. Until the time you are a consumer, you are invisible. The day you are a consumer, we start caring about you.
What was the process of writing the film?
I remember narrating the story to Hansal (Mehta, director) during the lockdown. Later, when I was working on Anek (2022), I decided this is what I was going to do next. I have two co-writers on Bheed: Saumya Tiwari and Sonali Jain. I told them to create as many characters as they possibly can. I wanted a privileged woman in the story, which is played by Dia Mirza. But the other characters… they were not written as representatives of specific segments. They have a lot of muscle and meat and contradictions. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to see the film in greys. It’s got all of us in it.
Why was the Prime Minister’s voice removed from the revised trailer?
It’s my battle, and not for the audiences’ consumption. For example, a lot of times we change a hero’s face from a poster because he doesn’t like that closeup. These things happen during the making of any film. But because it is perceived political, and it probably makes better headlines, we might want to talk about it. But I feel it will be a disservice to the film if we fixate on these issues on the eve of its release.
You sound more careful than usual...
It’s not about being careful, trust me. Do I look like a careful man to you? I don’t care. That’s my motto in life. But it’s the film and the story of the film which is more important than anything else right now. I don’t want the audiences’ mind to be burdened with this flab. Bheed is a delicate story and I want people to watch it with love. If I can generate one milligram of empathy in them through this film, none of these things matter.
So the PM’s voice and the Partition reference are gone from the final film as well?
It’s not anywhere. It doesn’t exist. That’s all I can talk about it.
Bheed is releasing with a U/A certificate. But do I look like an unhappy and sad man to you? The film is doing what it’s meant to do.
There are two contradictory instincts in your filmmaking style that I find fascinating. One is of a director who is deeply aware of institutional flaws and the complexities in society. On the other hand, you also want to speak to the widest possible crowd and play on the front-foot of emotions. Is it hard balancing both?
It’s a constant struggle. The insecurity of a film not reaching a wide audience is always there. But one also aspires to be subtle as a filmmaker. If you switch off the background score of Article 15, it’s an art film. When I was shooting it, I knew I didn’t want to make an inaccessible film. So I started seeing each shot with the score in my head. I’m aware of subtlety as well as the cheese that is required in making a film.
Was it the same while working on Bheed?
There is one shot of Rajkummar Rao in the film that I took in slow-motion. I kept watching it and it was hurting me every time. Several weeks later, I told my editor, Atanu Mukherjee, to take that slo-mo out. It was terrible (laughs). Thankfully, you can turn slow-motion into normal speed.
There are rumours of Bhushan Kumar distancing himself from Bheed. His name doesn’t appear in the promos.
What has happened to all of us, even educated and intellectual people, is that we have started subliminally subscribing to gossip. Why are people thinking that Bhushan has taken his name out? What if I have taken it out? Because the bigger the man you accuse, the juicier the gossip. For all you know, my contract with him ended. For all you know, it could have been a slip-up.
Bhushan started his professional journey with me in music videos. The first professional call he made was to me. And we have had rocky periods before. He didn’t make Mulk (2018) and I was very angry with him. But that’s between the two of us. It’s not for public consumption.
Bheed is releasing in theatres on March 24.