Bheed (2023), directed by Anubhav Sinha, explores how the draconian COVID-19-imposed lockdown throughout India in March 2020 affected the lives of millions of migrants from the lower rungs of our society, who had to trudge thousands of miles back to their homes from the cities. Keeping the pandemic in the background, the filmmaker highlights the fractures within the highly discriminatory caste-structure of the country and the sharp divide that is ever increasing between the wealthy and poor of the nation.
Bheed begins when the lockdown has been announced and migrant workers, who have no proper place to live in the metropolis, are forced to return to their villages. Their task is made even more difficult as states across India have started closing their borders to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Tensions escalate as the crowd gathers at the border of Tejpur village and waits for permission to enter the adjoining border state. Surya (Rajkummar Rao), an upright police officer belonging to the Dalit community, Tikas, is assigned the position of officer-in-charge of the situation by his senior, Circle Officer Yadav (Ashutosh Rana), instead of Ram Singh (Aditya Srivastava), a Thakur by caste. Among those stranded are an affluent woman, Geetanjali (Dia Mirza), who waits to cross the border to pick up her daughter from the hostel before her estranged husband can do so. A watchman from the upper-caste, Balram Trivedi (Pankaj Kapoor), travelling with his colleagues and ailing brother on a bus, tries to negotiate with the officers to go through. A young household help (Aditi Subedi), puts her life in peril attempting to take her alcoholic father (Omkar Das Manikpuri) back to their native place. As it becomes clear that no assistance is being provided for them to reach home, the crowd takes matters into its own hands…
The success of a film based on a socio-political issue relies almost entirely on the intention of the filmmaker to narrate a compelling, eye-opening and thought-provoking tale rather than engage in polemics and serve a chorus of information. Bheed is one such film which succeeds more often than not in its efforts to do so in spite of some pretty obvious censoring by the Censor Board. While a comparison with Sinha’s earlier outing, Article 15 (2019) is inevitable, where this film stands out is that unlike the protagonist, an upper-caste Brahmin who positions himself as the defender of the underprivileged and disadvantaged, the protagonist here belongs to a lower caste. He is very aware of his identity and most importantly, his position in the society. In one of the early scenes of the film, he is unable to make out with his upper-caste girlfriend and an intern in a medical college, Renu (Bhumi Pednekar), owing to her upper-caste status. Years of exploitation have conditioned his mind to such an extent that such physical closeness with women from the privileged class makes him impotent.
Sinha also uses the character of Yadav to showcase the fact that a reputed position in professional life need not necessarily guarantee equality in society. When his suffering parents are denied a hospital bed and have to lie on the makeshift beds on the floors, Bheed highlights yet again that caste remains the most persistent indicator of identity. At the same time, it also shows how an individual from the upper caste, Balram, is forced to change his Islamophobic attitude and pick up a gun and revolt when he can see children from his community starving. The film also takes a dig at how journalism can be selective. When TV journalist Vidhi (Kritika Kamra) approaches Surya for her opinion on how the Muslim people on the bus are targeted for spreading the virus owing to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy, Surya retorts that is this is the only issue that she has observed within the crowd?
That said there are glitches. Despite its stronghold on the subject matter, the writer trio composed of Sinha, Saumya Tiwari, and Sonali Jain are unable to bring together a concrete and coherent dramatic structure to the events that unfold within a span of two days. The final showdown in the film between Balram and Surya seems to have been constructed hurriedly. Time and again, individuals from the lower caste are repeatedly discussed as individuals from the lower being. Even Surya’s communication with Renu about his Dalit entity becomes repetitive. The discourse between Vidhi and her fellow journalist seems preachy and appears to be lifted from the arguments that were once in vogue in social media. But as mentioned, since the film has undergone much scrutiny from the censor board, one can’t say if the deleted scenes would have added a more different and nuanced perspective to the film. Moreover, a film like Bheed that does not follow the conventional style of Bollywood’s escapist products, so the mandatory intermission after an hour into its running time breaks the viewer’s emotional connection with the story, forcing the filmmaker to bring him/her back into the film’s story post-interval.
Soumik Mukherjee’s black and white camerawork is an added asset as his framing within the thick of the action helps us empathise with the characters as they navigate their physical and emotional turmoil. The wide and aerial shots of the thousands of migrant workers stranded at Tejpur effectively capture the scale and magnitude of the problem. The smooth and rhythmic flow of visual images that contrast hope and sorrow are juxtaposed perfectly by editor Atanu Mukherjee. Anita Kushwaha’s sound design creates a strong aural scape that is intertwined and entangled in the film’s texture while Mangesh Dhakde’s background score is subtly boosting the atmosphere in each scene, which lends emotional strength to the film.
Sinha assembles a strong cast of outstanding actors to play the pivotal parts. Rajkummar Rao as Surya brings a remarkably fine arc to his character from being an order-following officer to an evolved individual whose rational thinking and leadership lead to a powerful climax to the film. His expressions on various occasions in the film are an apt depiction of a police officer’s inner turmoil and sincerity. Pankaj Kapoor, as an individual of upper caste, brings myriad shades to his character with such depth and nuance that it’s difficult not to support his cause. In the supporting roles, Bhumi Pendekar, Ashutosh Rana, Aditya Shrivastav, and Kritika Kamra excel in their restrained performances and give much social and psychological discernment to their characters. Dia Mirza shines as a mother who becomes selfish in a desperate situation.
Bheed more than justifies its thematic concerns despite some weaknesses in terms of narrative structure. It is one of those brave and courageous films that mostly conveys its point of view without a heavy dose of dramatization or melodrama. Overall, it could be said that Anubhav Sinha adds yet another fine, socially-relevant film to his increasingly impressive cinematic oeuvre.
Hindi, Drama, Black and White