Director: Anubhav Sinha
Writers: Sonali Jain, Saumya Tiwari, Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Pankaj Kapur, Ashutosh Rana, Aditya Srivastava, Dia Mirza, Kritika Kamra, Virendra Saxena
It says something about the modern relationship between the state of art and the art of state that Bheed will firstly be known as a ‘brave’ film. Its identity will always be linked to its courage. Bheed, meaning “crowd”, tells a story shaped by the chaos of the 2020 migrant exodus. The film is set in the weeks following the sudden announcement of India’s first Covid-19 lockdown, back when institutional apathy led crores of marooned workers in the cities to depart for their villages on foot. The images of their internal displacement made global headlines, citing comparisons to the Partition of 1947. In other words, here’s a mainstream Hindi movie – with a solid cast to boot – about India’s most recent government-induced tragedy. That it exists, in whatever capacity, is commendable. But is a film like Bheed good solely by virtue of being important? That’s the Anubhav Sinha Question.
Sinha’s movies often say the right (or left?) things, but they’re also undercut by a bleeding-heart-liberal aesthetic. Some of it feels like Twitter Filmmaking, a syndrome defined by urban storytellers building socially expressive stories as a reaction to online discourse. The director’s rage is either too verbose (Mulk), too righteous (Article 15) or too pretentious (Anek). Given the circumstances, however, I’d say Bheed succeeds more than it fails. For starters, the narrative scale is tactful. It goes for a single situation – one that serves as a microcosm of a country on the brink – rather than a broad and sprawling sweep of time. Much of the film unfolds over the course of an afternoon at a check post between two unnamed states – where several colliding characters represent the several stricken sections of society. As a result, there’s a real-time urgency to the film. Nothing is certain, the law keeps shifting shape, and information is as invisible as the victims of a developing economy. What we see, then, is the map and machinations of India condensed into the parameters of an outdoor chamber drama. The symbolism isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s efficient.
No border and conflict is spared. There’s a bit of caste: An “in-charge” cop, Surya Kumar Singh (Rajkummar Rao), is torn between the oppressive morality of his job and the trauma of his hidden surname. There’s a bit of science: His girlfriend, Renu Sharma (Bhumi Pednekar), is an on-duty doctor and the only voice of reason there. There’s a bit of religion: After seeing the news of the Tablighi Jamaat hotspot on ‘Fakebook,’ a bus full of famished security guards and their families, led by a frantic Trivedi (a terrific Pankaj Kapur), refuses to accept meal packets from a bus full of Muslims. There’s a bit of Parasite-inspired class: Stranded in her Toyota Fortuner, a wealthy woman (Dia Mirza) expects the full servitude of her driver (Sushil Pandey) while joking about ‘their’ strong immunity. She keeps an eye on a poor teenage girl and her alcoholic father, convinced that the girl might find a secret route the way rats find an escape. There’s also a bit of journalism: An idealistic news anchor (Kritika Kamra) stays at odds with a cynical photojournalist (Karan Pandit) while covering the crisis. And, of course, there’s a bit of visual form. I’d like to believe that the black-and-white palette is a heavy-footed nod to social disparity and the late photojournalist Danish Siddiqui’s portraiture of suffering – and not a defiant ode to Schindler’s List (1993), the film most cited by the defenders of The Kashmir Files (2022). (Sinha has said in an interview that he chose to film in black and white to signal a similarity to the experiences of those who survived the violent migration of Partition.)
One might argue that the staging is self-conscious. For instance, an empty mall in the middle of nowhere looks too planted. The mall will naturally play a role in the face-off between the hungry migrants and the police; it will prompt lyrical ramblings about “aukaat” and boundaries. The transformation arc of Surya Kumar, too, seems inevitable, as though he were a lovechild of the protagonists from Newton (2017) and Article 15 (2019). Ditto for an overwrought Incredible India debate between the two journalists. There are classic film-school oversells. Like the shot of the reporters eating lunch while wondering why the nearby villages aren’t feeding the migrants. Or the anchor’s penchant for introspective observations (the sort that equate ‘samaaj’ and ‘bheed’) that double up as voiceovers. The first scene of the film is especially strange. It features something brutal – a tired family dozes off on a railway track at night; a train approaches – but plays out more like a parody of poverty. They look and converse like Raju Rastogi’s black-and-white-film family members from 3 Idiots (2009).
Yet there’s a lot to like about Bheed. Its politics are more suggestive than aggressive, evident in how the virus is as inconspicuous as the government. One is sensed, the other is feared. We never actually see the few people with Covid-19 symptoms, just as we never hear of the orders from above. I like that the film plays out like a lost chapter of history. Our engagement stems from our own relationship with the past. There’s the duality of watching a high-stakes thriller while being aware that every victory – a hopeful ending, a coming-of-age journey, a diffusion of violence – is only a lesser form of defeat. Consequently, we watch things unfold with a tinge of sympathy, knowing that this is only the beginning of a long and unequal lockdown. The intent is to show that survival is a great equalizer. But there’s also a sense that humans practice prejudice to explain injustice the same way they embrace religion to explain grief. Trivedi, for example, is so disturbed by his inability to feed his community that he wields his upper-caste Hinduism as a fading weapon. When the reporter, Vidhi, requests to interview Surya about the “Muslim bus,” he asks her if that’s the only story she sees there. Similarly, Surya’s boss (Ashutosh Rana) and bitter rival (Aditya Srivastava) say the term ‘naxalite’ like it isn’t part of their personal vocabulary. You can sense that their language is a coping mechanism, a tool to rationalize the pain of being underpaid puppets.
I like that Bheed subscribes to the cinema of perspective, too. The events on the day play out like a war movie, in which a hollow concept of patriotism makes the soldiers turn on each other. What’s happening pales in comparison to what is, which is why Bheed rarely feels as smug as Sinha’s last few films. The little touches of craft help. A well-performed sex scene establishes Surya as an overthinker, a worrier who is cursed with the gift of processing the world differently than his colleagues. The character doesn’t always work – particularly in the physical final act – but Rao’s acting gives the film an emotional fulcrum. Some scenes insist on telling instead of showing, literally spelling out the composition of frames. Fortunately, the rhythm doesn’t allow the viewer to dwell on these issues.
Most of the cast is excellent, even if the shot-taking descends into arthouse every-frame-a-painting territory. At least the film commits to its crowded ideas. This ensures that when the controversial Partition line is muted, the sudden silence raises even more awareness about the weight of these words. The gag ironically reflects the core theme of Bheed, a movie that’s all about cries falling on deaf ears. It’s where the art of the state unwittingly elevates the state of art. And it’s where Bheed graduates from euphemistic adjectives like brave. After all, what is dissent today if not the dialect of decency?