Bhumi Pednekar in Bhakshak. (courtesy: bhumipednekar)
A mixed bag of things that work and those that don't, Bhakshak means well. It brings to the screen a shocking true story but does not resort to any manner of sensationalism. It builds its case slowly and steadily without ever getting ahead of itself.
Centred on inmates of a shelter home who are subjected to atrocities by the very people tasked with protecting them, Bhakshak abjures massy methods to get its point across. With so much going for it, why does the film not pack a heftier punch?
It is certainly not for want of trying on the part of lead actress Bhumi Pednekar. She revels in the role of a careworn but doughty Patna journalist committed to the ethics of her profession. But there is something missing in Bhakshak that she cannot paper over no matter how hard she tries.
Directed by Pulkit and written by him with Jyotsana Nath, Bhakshak is way too bland for a hard-hitting story inspired by reality. The film says the right things. Parts, just stray parts, of it are on point. It does not, however, break any new ground nor is it able to formulate an deliver its undeniably urgent message with the requisite force.
The appalling state of affairs in a shelter for girls in Munawwarpur, Bihar - a fictional town that stands in for Muzaffarpur, which, a few years ago, was rocked by revelations of sexual abuse in a home run by an NGO - should have left us squirming in discomfort. It barely does. Nor does the dark truths that it 'unearths' send us reeling
Bhakshak lacks genuine tension and energy for the most part primarily because its understated directorial style isn't sufficiently backed up with touches that could be deemed cinematically noteworthy. Its heart is in the right place. Its tools of expression aren't, definitely not to the desired extent.
It treads with utmost caution - a commendable attribute when one is dealing with a sensitive issue - and makes it a point not to be shrill and shrieky. While the strategy makes sense, the film allows itself to be overpowered by listlessness.
To be fair, Pulkit and his tonally consistent screenplay deserve applause for not going graphic with the depiction of the horrors that unfold in the girls' shelter. But, at the same time, it leaves one with the feeling that it could have landed harder blows with an edgier depiction of the harrowing toxicity that prevails there.
The film is trapped in what feels like a dour, watered down view of things. When you look for a sledgehammer blow, all it delivers is a pinprick. It places the dreadful facts of the case before the audience through largely tangential sequences.
Bhakshak attempts to lay bare the perverse goings-on in the shelter home but is rarely able to fully communicate the horrific nature of the crimes that are committed there. The film's opening sequence in which an act of sickening depravity cuts a young life short comes close to doing that. But that is an exception.
Produced by Gauri Khan and Gaurav Verma of Red Chillies Entertainment and streaming on Netflix, the protagonist of the crime drama is Vaishali Singh (Pednekar), a journalist married for six years to post office employee Arvind (Surya Sharma). Her husband fluctuates between cynicism and support for his wife's calling.
Vaishali has broken away from a mainstream media company and runs a nondescript news channel all by herself. It is aptly called Koshish News. When she stumbles upon a damning social audit report on a shelter home, she swings into action. She resolves not to rest until the facts are brought to light and the culprits are punished.
Bhakshak isn't a conventional vigilante thriller. Vaishali Singh does not possess either the derring-do or the resources of an intrepid crusader. She is an ordinary girl simply doing her job, asking questions and demanding action in the face of severe threats to life and limb.
Along with cameraman Bhaskar Sinha (Sanjay Mishra, as always effortlessly on the ball) - he is the only colleague that she has - Vaishali heads to Munawwarpur with the intention of substantiating the findings of the audit report in her possession.
There, she and Bhaskar run into a politically connected Bansi Sahu (Aditya Srivastava), a smarmy shelter home caretaker Sonu (Satyakam Anand) and a child welfare official Mithilesh Sinha (Chittaranjan Tripathy), who first stonewall Vaishali's solo investigation and then, when she persists with her probe, issue dire warnings.
Bansi Sahu, modelled on the real-life criminal who used his political clout and a self-owned newspaper to shield himself from the law, has as many as three publications in his stable. He uses his NGO as a front for his nefarious activities. He has no dearth of ammunition. Vaishali is armed only with a low-end camera and loads of resolve.
It is a battle of attrition between two mismatched forces. The heroine is no all-conquering 'hero' in uniform. Yes, she does receive help from a senior policewoman, SSP Jasmeet Gaur (Sai Tamhankar), newly posted in Munawwarpur.
But the latter is acutely aware of the limits of her authority. The system gives you power and takes it away with the same hand, Jasmeet says to Vaishali. Besides the politicisation of policing, Bhakshak puts journalism under the scanner and takes potshots at the social media-obsessed world at large.
The world is full of stupid reporters, one character says. Vaishali Singh isn't one. But she, too, spouts lines that border on the vacuous. Humans have minds and if we don't speak up, we should regard ourselves as animals, she says.
Bhakshak deserves full marks for intent. Its sustained restraint works just fine but the mission that the lone wolf journalist undertakes in the film appears to meander a bit too much for its - and the film's - good.
One might have ended this review with "more power to directors like Pulkit" had the film itself not been so in need of more power.
Bhumi Pednekar, Sanjay Mishra, Aditya Srivastav