Till the mid-2010s, even after two decades of being a director, it seemed like Anubhav Sinha lacked a voice. In a filmography that had dithered between romantic dramas, contrived-but-enjoyable action films and superhero vanity projects, the Rishi Kapoor-starrer Mulk (2018) changed things. For the first time in Sinha’s career, a film seemed to emerge from his personal hurt about the state of affairs around him. While most of his contemporaries were prioritising popular, apolitical sentiments over ideology or any personal morality, Sinha made a film that said what he felt; rather than what was considered box-office friendly. The result was Sinha’s first critically-acclaimed film in over a decade. Mulk went on to spawn a whole subgenre of films that are now recognised as quintessentially Anubhav Sinha. They work within the trappings of the Bollywood masala genre, but still broach social issues and make a case for progressive politics. Five years and five films later, it’s already a complicated legacy.
Given how most of mainstream Hindi cinema seems to be going out of its way to remove all references to anything resembling real life, Sinha’s brand of socially-conscious movies which are unabashedly grounded in contemporary India feels brave. He makes a point of addressing issues most are too afraid to even reference, and packages them as a star vehicle that has some commercial appeal at the box office. It’s the kind of combination that either lands well or feels too bluntly evangelical. Sinha’s latest release, Bheed (2023) — about India’s migrant labour crisis, triggered by the lockdown announced to contain Covid-19 — has a few moments that make an impact, but for most part, the film is weighed down by its self-importance.
There’s no doubt that Bheed, which failed at the box office, is made with excellent intentions. Sinha conceived the idea while he was caged in his apartment following the announcement of the lockdown, a month before he was supposed to start shooting Anek (2022) in April 2020. “Initially, it was a party for us, right? We were cooking, posting pictures of our dishes,” Sinha recalled. He remembered feeling “angry” at labourers setting out for their hometowns despite being explicitly told to not do so. “Slowly, the understanding began to set in that they don’t live in homes where they can simply live for 21 days,” he said. “Suddenly, they became visible to me – this ‘invisible’ population of any metropolis.”
Sinha came up with the initial one-line idea a couple of months into the lockdown in June 2020 and narrated it to good friend and fellow filmmaker, Hansal Mehta. Mehta loved the idea. It sounded to Mehta like a “quieter, more personal film” than Bheed ended up being. “I told him I saw it like a Majid Majidi film,” said Mehta. “It had a checkpost, [an in-charge] who had to stop his own people. I saw it as a conversation between them. What happens between compassion, beauty and pressure, you know?”
Bheed is definitely a more ‘external’ film – one that recreates the horrors of the first lockdown and shows how vulnerable sections of the population were left to fend for themselves. Sinha makes it a point to include most of the incidents that made headlines from that time, like when a group of poor people were hosed down with sanitiser in order to ‘cleanse’ them. The scene in Bheed almost mirrors images of the Holocaust. Another powerful moment in the film is when a group of exhausted labourers go to sleep on tracks because they think no trains are running because of lockdown — only to be run over by a rushing train. There’s also the story of a gritty young woman who cycled all the way from Delhi to her village in Bihar, with her father seated behind her. Bheed recreates these incidents in black-and-white, a choice that feels gimmicky, as though it’s a public service announcement or a pretentious attempt at showing human suffering as ‘art’.
Since Mulk, Sinha’s films have felt increasingly patronising towards the audience. What initially felt like an angry filmmaker trying to shake his audience out of their ennui in his 2018 release, seemed more like smug superiority in Article 15 (2019). Sinha introduced an upper-caste protagonist (Ayushmann Khurrana) who investigates a case of caste-based violence in a tiny hamlet in Uttar Pradesh. Khurrana played a cop who has just about returned from London, and is completely unaware of the caste divisions in our society. His ignorance becomes the loudspeaker that Sinha uses to educate the audience at large. Showing an open-mindedness that is rare in Hindi cinema, Sinha said the criticism he got for Article 15 was “constructive”. “I considered [the criticism] very, very strongly because it came from a few quarters. I remember thinking that maybe they weren’t being unreasonable with their expectation from a film that claimed to address caste disparity,” he said. In Bheed, Sinha makes a visible effort to distinguish the characters who are upper caste, Dalit and from other backward castes (OBCs). This feels like a step in the right direction.
Documentary filmmaker and writer Jyoti Nisha said she appreciated Sinha helping “visbilise” certain issues through mainstream films, but cautioned against these social themes getting appropriated. “His (Sinha’s) aesthetics and gaze are not removed from popular culture. It's speaking the language of privilege: The Brahmin Gaze,” she said. Take, for instance Gaura (Sayani Gupta), who appears to have a more tanned complexion compared to the rest of the cast in Article 15 and ends up feeling like shorthand for a “Dalit according to an upper-caste”. Contrast this to Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (2022), where the director subverts popular notions about the complexion of Dalits by casting Dushara Vijayan. In a time where filmmakers like Ranjith, Nagraj Manjule or Neeraj Ghaywan are making insightful films on caste issues, directors like Sinha can’t take the easy route. “[Sometimes] it looks like they sat in their comfortable offices watching news and made up their minds to make a film on caste,” Nisha said about directors who approach social dramas without being aware of their privilege. She also pointed out that it is not that difficult for one to educate themselves. “Every year students graduate from the film schools and institutions like IIMC [Indian Institute of Mass Communication], JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University], TISS [Tata Institute of Social Sciences] and HCU [Hyderabad Central University]. One can use that knowledge. It’s essential that representation is conveyed through the lived experience and knowledge of marginalised communities,” she said.
Mehta said he has often told Sinha that the director’s biggest gift – his way with words – is also an area that needs the most improvement. For example in Article 15, the scene where the protagonist is told about the hierarchy of the caste system in granular detail is a darkly funny-yet-important scene. On the other hand, there’s a scene in Anek in which Khurrana and Chakravarthy’s characters are determining what qualifies as North Indian, East Indian and Indian. It’s a painfully dry scene and feels like a sermon from the filmmaker trying to ‘educate’ his audience through his characters.
Making films that address social issues has also become markedly more difficult in recent years — something that Sinha knows intimately well. When the Bheed teaser came out, it included Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s voice announcing the nationwide lockdown, and a character in the film compared the migrant labour exodus to the 1947 Partition. A week before the film’s theatrical release, the teaser had to be taken offline. A list of the cuts demanded by the Central Board of Certification went viral around the time of Bheed’s release. The final version of the film has no references to Partition or the Prime Minister’s address to the nation. There are also some bits of dialogue that have been muted with deliberate abruptness to ensure the audience realises the film was censored to get that coveted U/A certificate. Sinha wasn’t enthused about answering questions about censorship understandably. Mehta was more vocal about the challenges of making topical films in contemporary India. “Even if there’s no direct pressure, everyone is feeling it. And the pressure is not from one section. You will face it from unexpected people,” said Mehta, going on to add that the “noise” from the media also ensures filmmakers start putting invisible pressure on themselves, by trying to pre-empt controversy.
When asked if he feels any extra sense of responsibility while making a topical film in an era when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so, Sinha answered in the negative. “I think it’s more about response than responsibility. This is my response to the times I’m living in. If I think about my responsibilities as a filmmaker then I fear I might be giving too much attention to who I am,” he said. Mehta pointed out the prevalence of “alternative” narrative and stories that simply erase certain chapters of Indian history. A quick turnaround for films that effectively become a record of the present feel necessary, even if they are hastily done. That said, one can’t help but wonder if Bheed would have made for a better film if it had been made a few years later, once both Sinha and his audience had a chance to process the traumatic events of the migrant labour crisis.
In a time when few filmmakers like Sinha are making topical films that address the times we’re in, it is arguably all the more necessary for storytellers to be introspective and deliberate upon the stories they want to tell. “Empathy is the first rule of understanding social justice, and second is having a scientific temperament,” said Nisha. “Imagination is not everything and it’s the cultural nuance that lends authenticity to stories and make them more universal. The marginalised people need more opportunities in the industry, the industry needs them.”
Ultimately, perhaps it all boils down to what one of Sinha’s characters says in Bheed: “Society accepts change only when we start embodying it. Till then, you change your ways, and so will I.” Let’s hope Sinha can follow the lead of his own characters, and embody the change in his process.