While covering the mass migration of workers from cities to villages during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, one realised who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from. When borders were drawn within the country, the virus also exposed our weak social immunity spilled in the form of bheed on national highways and railway tracks.
This week, director Anubhav Sinha has kneaded the infection of novel coronavirus with insidious social discrimination to craft a compelling statement that stands out in the crowd of films made during the pandemic.
Deeply political in its thought, provocative in its composition, and humane in its gaze, Bheed shows us the mirror that we took off our walls once the pandemic receded into the background.
Set at a junction on the State border, it is an account of a caravan of migrants of different social hues who are stopped by a police officer who is dealing with another virus that is prevailing for centuries in society. The writers (Sinha, Saumya Tiwari, and Sonali Jain) tie up the diverse snapshots of people caught in the unprecedented situation fairly well.
It is the incisive dialogues that propel the story. When the protagonist says, “we could not make arrangements for them (migrant workers) when they were in the villages, we could not take care of them when they were in the cities and now we could not take care of them when they are back,” it sums up the situation for things haven’t changed back home. Shot in black and white, early in the film, we watch the stark image of a severely injured person who is beaten up because he dared to drink water from a place of worship during the pandemic.
As someone who addressed the caste matrix well in Article 15, Sinha once again cries for social justice without romanticising it. The film states that the market has systematically turned migrant workers into cheap labour and that they would return at the first opportunity. If Article 15 was from the gaze of a high-caste police officer finding his feet in a difficult situation; the companion piece is from the point of view of a lower-rung officer, caught between his social identity and an unprecedented state of affairs.
The audience have to closely listen to the surnames of the characters as the film captures how caste informs the behaviour of a person. Spurred by the unprecedented situation, Balram Trivedi (Pankaj Kapur), an upper caste watchman of a high rise in a metropolis, turns into a different kettle of fish when he is a few kilometres away from his village. But Surya Kumar Singh (Rajkummar Rao), a young, upright police officer, isn’t sure of his power even when he is made the in-charge of the post by his well-meaning superior Yadav (Ashutosh Rana), because his lower caste identity comes in the way.
When COVID-19 generates a new social order where everybody is almost equally helpless, Surya starts seeing his reflection in the eyes of Balram who is seeking food for his family members. The psychological unraveling of Surya and Balram’s desperation to assert his social superiority in a desperate situation makes Bheed an engaging and important watch.
One of the most stirring strands of the film is how the spectre of caste has scarred the soul of Surya, so much so that it has affected his performance in his love life. In love with an upper caste girl, Renu Sharma (Bhumi Pednekar), who is strangely unaware of what the relationship entails, Surya could not shake off his caste identity when he takes off his shirt. That he carries two stars on the shoulders of his uniform doesn’t empower him enough to open up a closed mall for the migrants or stand up to Balram when he threatens to take the law into his hands. He may be a part of the System but for Surya, justice is still in the hands of the socially powerful.
Sinha doesn’t lose the opportunity to process the satire that inadvertently surfaces in the tense situation and one could sense the contribution of script consultant Anjum Rajabali. Like when Balram goes out of hand, the circle officer Yadav (Ashutosh Rana) asks Ram Singh (Aditya Srivastava), the ‘real’ Singh among the policemen, what has happened to Surya? Ram Singh, unable to process the pain of Surya, strikes a dramatic pose and replies, “woh aahat hain” (He is hurt!).
The writers have woven select shocking episodes that happened during the lockdown into the narrative but haven’t milked them for melodrama. They suggest that the decision-making apparatus had also gone into a hang. The meetings that were said to be happening to decide the fate of workers were only for social media consumption but when the concrete mixer is allowed to pass through, someone remarks, ‘sadak banti rahegi’ (the infrastructure work will continue). The film also takes on the skewed sense of a section of the mediapersons. The Tablighi-Jamaat episode plays out only in passing as Sinha steers clear of the temptation of making it the driving force. In fact, Surya tells Vidhi (Kritika Kamra), a well-meaning journalist struggling to make sense of the situation, that she should come out of her Hindu-Muslim obsession to understand the world better.
Cast in a challenging role where there is no connection between the body language and what’s cooking inside the character, Rajkummar deftly brings out the relentless squirming inside Surya. Kapur ensures that Balram doesn’t become a caricature and Rana brings out the pressures that the officer of an in-between caste endures and how he strikes a balance. They are ably supported by the ever-reliable Aditya and Virendra Saxena. Bhumi is not bad as the doctor in love on duty and so isn’t Dia Mirza, cast against type, as a self-seeking mother. The persuasive performances are backed by folksy tunes that blend with the visuals.
There are passages when the screenplay feels a little scattered and it seems that the dialogues are being addressed more to the audience than to the characters to tick some predictable boxes. In between, Sinha, who is also the producer of the film, ensures that the film doesn’t earn the tag of ‘anti-national’ but the compromises don’t blunt the bite of Bheed.
Bheed is currently running in theatres