‘Bheed’ Is an Important, Powerful Film, But It’s Not the One We Were Promised

While the first trailer for the Anubhav Sinha-directed movie about lockdown in India was bold and political, the final cut is robbed of its courage


Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Pankaj Kapur, Ashutosh Rana, Dia Mirza, Kritika Kamra, Aditya Srivastava, Veerendra Saxena

Direction: Anubhav Sinha

Rating: **1/2

Showing in theaters

When the first trailer ofBheeddropped on social media around March 10th, it created a lot of buzz and disbelief.

It began with a familiar voice — of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24th, 2020 — announcing a complete, 21-day, nationwide lockdown, giving India’s 140 crore citizens four hours’ notice to figure out their lives.

With that one sentence — “Aaj raat, 12 baje se, poor desh mein sampoorn lockdown hona jaa raha hai— millions were rendered homeless, jobless, penniless. Without food, water, money and any assurance or assistance from the government, millions of people across cities and states started walking back to the villages they had come from.

The images that appeared on the screen along with the voiceover were of cops beating migrant workers.

There was something very deliberately bold, powerful and triggering about the trailer. These were not just random images of the overnight loss of a nation’s humanity. Director Abhinav Sinha ring-fenced the human tragedy which unfolded in 2020 by showing what caused it. The context was real and the harrowing scenes were part of India’s collective nightmare.

The trailer shook something inside.

Two friends texted me to say that they wept while watchingBheed’s trailer, and both wondered whether the film will be allowed to release at all.

Then, the second trailer dropped. And like it is in real life these days, it showed a human tragedy without pinning responsibility.

While the earlier trailer belonged to a film about a very specific calamity triggered by a decision that had not been thought through by the government because it seemed to have no clue about the country they were governing,Bheed’s new trailer seemed to belong to a different film — one that was about the many general ills of India. In this one, mass exodus and state brutality featured as if it were a result of a natural calamity, with the focus on how people behaved on-ground and not on how a decision taken at the top had a chilling effect.

And so it is the case with the film, which released in theaters on Friday after several cuts and a U/A censor certificate.

Anubhav Sinha’sBheedis not a bad film. It’s a powerful, conscientious film that explores police brutality, class privilege, caste divide, religious mistrust, an apathetic state and its impact on the state machinery and the disempowered.

But it’s a film that has been robbed of its political and constitutional courage. And it’s not the film we were first promised.

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Shot in black and white,Bheedis set at the checkpost of a small town called Tejpur and opens 13 days into the lockdown, with several headlines conveying the death, chaos and tragedy unfolding across the country: “16 die as train runs over tired migrants sleeping on tracks.”

In Tejpur, senior officer Yadavji (Ashutosh Rana) puts Surya Kumar Singh Tikas (Rajkummar Rao) in charge of the main police. chowki on the border. The orders are simple: No one is to be allowed in.

After spending an evening with his medical-student girlfriend Renu Sharma (Bhumi Pednekar), Tikas, along with his colleague Singh saab (Aditya Srivastava) and others, takes charge.

The police chowki on a kachha road seems to be set in some dusty dystopia. Surrounded by a vast expanse of fields, there’s just a small chai stall nearby, and a mall with its shutters down.

Several people who had set off for their homes begin arriving at the border. There are men, women, children, families in buses, trucks, tempos, cars, on cycles, and many with blistered feet, their chappals and will completely worn out. All are waiting to be allowed to cross the border and go home.

Balram Trivedi (Pankaj Kapur), a security guard who managed to hire a bus, is trying to take his extended family home, including his brother who has a high fever.

Also stuck at the border is a bus full of Muslims, a man related to an important, local politician and a woman (Dia Mirza) in an SUV, with her driver Kanaiya (Sushil Pandey) at the steering wheel. She is desperately trying to get to her daughter who is stranded at her hostel.

There’s also television reporter Vidhi Tripathi (Kritika Kamra) with cameraman Nasir Munir and a cynical photographer.

The crowd keeps swelling, the long queue of people, buses and cars now extending beyond the horizon.

At the checkpost, the task of the police is asked to just “manage” the situation. So there are announcements to wear masks, keep social distancing, and some basic testing of those with symptoms.

Posts on social media promise that the government is in a huddle and discussing what relief can be extended to the millions who are trying to get home. But the cops at the chowki haven’t received any fresh orders.

With no place to rest, no access to hospitals, food, water or bathrooms, but reports of Tablighi Jamaat spreading the virus, hostilities rise and desperation begins to turn into rage.

After a somewhat jarring thriller type of twist,Bheedends exactly as every man-made tragedy ends in India: With a hat-tip to the resilience of the poor. Their ability to survive is celebrated, and their suffering is ignored.

This celebration of how quickly people in India move on, get on with their lives, this need to garland “sab changa si” status, means that no one is responsible and no one needs to be held accountable.

To me, this felt like a dissatisfying, wasted opportunity.

But that’s not Anubhav Sinha’s fault. His film has received at least 13 cuts, including the Prime Minister’s voiceover, and the comparison of the migration of migrant workers during lockdown to the 1947 Partition.

Given that,Bheedis an honest account of what happened when state borders were shut and is a brutal snapshot of an apathetic state and its machinery.

These days Anubhav Sinha takes up only difficult, contentious subjects and his style is often B-grade. Everything is loud, rousing, emotional and in-your-face.

He let go of this in his film Thappadbut the rest of his films, especially Mulk and Article 15are strong B-grade films. There is immediate power in that approach, but little lasting impact.

He has shotBheedin black and white, which gives the film an artsy touch. The film has some powerful, moving scenes and poignant lines, and these may stay with you, but the film as a whole won’t stay with you after you’ve left the cinema hall.

Bheed focuses a lot on caste and caste-conflict. It shows how deep religious and caste prejudices run in India, how justice is just another stick of the powerful to beat the powerless with. There’s a point and purpose to this.

Written by Sinha Saumya Tiwari and Sonali Jain, Bheed wants to tell us that most of the men and women rendered homeless overnight were not just migrant workers, but people belonging to “lower” castes.

But the film assigns caste discrimination and the rage against it only to Rajkummar Rao’s character. In a rather interesting scene involving Tikas and Sharma, Bheed shows how much that can impact even the most intimate relations, though, ultimately, the film is not able to communicate its larger point very clearly.

But Rao, who carries Bheed on his shoulders, lifts the film with his very fine performance.

Ashutosh Rana is restrained and very good, Aditya Srivastava is quite fabulous, but Pankaj Kapur was a bit disappointing because of the way his role and lines were written.

But a bigger disappointment for me was Bhumi Pednekar, who seems to have settled into a routine where she is a moonh-phat girl who calls a spade a spade and grabs her desire by the collar. We’ve seen this before, often, and it’s now beginning to flatline.

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