Bheed Movie Review: Well-intentioned, But Hurriedly Written

Bheed, Anubhav revisits the horrors of March 2020, the early months of the pandemic when India went into lockdown.
Bheed Movie Review: Well-intentioned, But Hurriedly Written

Anubhav Sinha is a filmmaker fueled by righteous rage. His mid-career films, starting with Mulk in 2018, fearlessly delve into the many uncomfortable realities of our country.  His filmmaking might be blunt but Anubhav’s insistence on confronting these truths is admirable.  In 2019, he made Article 15 about the horrors of caste.  In 2020, he made Thappad about patriarchy and domestic violence.  In 2022, he made Anek, which focused on the mainland’s contentious relationship with the North East.  

In his latest, Bheed, Anubhav revisits the horrors of March 2020, the early months of the pandemic when India went into lockdown.  The sudden and near total shutting of the country, including public transport, caused the single largest migration after Partition. Millions of daily wage workers left cities to return on foot to their villages. The result was a humanitarian crisis, which overshadowed the threat of Covid.  Each day brought new horrors – dozens of migrants being killed as they lay sleeping on train tracks, stories of starvation and death and that one spark of hope – a teenage girl Jyoti Paswan who made her father sit on the back of her bicycle and rode 1200 miles from Gurgaon to her village Darbhanga in Bihar. 

Anubhav stitches these true stories together into a fictional tale.  Much of the action takes place at a police checkpost near a village called Tejpur in UP.  A shiny mall stands next to dusty roads.  But now, all movement must be halted.  So hundreds, hoping to somehow get home, gather and the check post becomes a microcosm of India – the poorest huddle on the side, waiting for relief. A more privileged woman sits inside her Fortuner passing vacuous comments about lactose intolerance and the strong immunity of those with less.  As the authorities falter and the system unravels, the age-old fault lines of caste and religion surface.  Even in the face of death, these divisions aren’t abandoned.  A Hindu refuses food from a Muslim.  And a cop from the oppressed caste, now in charge of the checkpost, is repeatedly reminded of his ‘aukaad ki boundary line.’ 

Anubhav, who has co-written Bheed with Saumya Tiwari and Sonali Jain, tells this story in black and white.  The idea, he has said in interviews, is to evoke images of the Partition.  This is an intriguing formal choice but its impact is muted.  Some of the images are striking – the DOP is Soumik Mukherjee – but the black and white doesn’t accentuate enough the harshness of what transpired.  The lack of color serves the film best when Soumik’s camera captures in close-up, faces of the migrants, exhausted and hopeless, and their feet, torn and bleeding.  At one point, a character says there are now borders inside our own country but any overt references to the Partition have been erased and I wonder if younger viewers will make the connection that Anubhav is asking them to.  Also, the comparison of the religion- fueled brutality of Partition and the crisis caused by a systems failure during the pandemic seems more provocative than poignant.  It’s impossible to measure human suffering against each other.  Any comparison diminishes the magnitude of the tragedy for both.

But the bigger hurdle is that while Bheed is well-intentioned, it feels hurriedly written.  The film attempts to combine the heft of documentary with the drama of fiction but the narrative flounders in the no-man’s land in between.  The film begins with a skillfully edited sequence – props to editor Atanu Mukherjee –  of migrants sleeping on train tracks.  Without showing any gore, Anubhav and Atanu establish the utter awfulness of what transpired.  But then the screenplay becomes a hodgepodge of thinly written characters and snapshots from headlines of the time.  Anubhav and casting director Mukesh Chhabra have put together a superb ensemble cast – apart from Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar, there’s Pankaj Kapur, Ashutosh Rana, Dia Mirza, Aditi Subedi, Aditya Srivastava and Virendra Saxena.  However, the narrative can’t make room for each of them to shine.  Dia gets the shortest end of the stick playing the Fortuner lady who seems to be the Indian descendent of Marie Antoinette during the French revolution.   At one point, she asks about migrants hiding inside a cement mixer truck – saans kaise le rahe thhe uss mein?  The writers also put clunky dialogue into the mouths of a team of reporters covering the tragedy.  The cameraperson declares: We are a sick society.  Too many of the characters are types rather than people and several scenes function as opinion pieces rather than organic elements of the story. 

But the pace picks up post-interval when the drama kicks in.  And this is when Rajkummar and Pankaj reveal yet again, why they are amongst the finest actors in the country.  Both also benefit enormously from having fleshed-out, layered characters to bite into.  Rajkummar is superb as a man battling between his legacy, his place in life and his duty as an officer on the frontlines of hell.  And Pankaj doesn’t miss a beat as a bigoted patriarch who is also vulnerable and tragic. 

When the film got over, I wondered if perhaps it was made too soon.  It’s only been three years since these events. Perhaps more time and emotional distance is required to fully comprehend the enormity of the disaster.  Bheed is only a first, fledgling step toward that.

Related Stories

No stories found.