Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Dia Mirza, Ashutosh Rana, Pankaj Kapur and Kritika Kamra
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
In Bheed, out in the theatres three years to the day after the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown was announced, writer-director-producer Anubhav Sinha quotes Bob Marley and the Wailers' Buffalo Soldier to stress the importance of knowing "your history" and being conscious of "where you coming from".
In presenting a fictional account of the impact of the pandemic - and (especially) of the total nationwide lockdown - on migrant workers and daily wage earners left to fend for themselves, Bheed, filmed entirely in black and white, does indeed point to where we have come from and where we are headed as a nation riven by disparities.
The film expresses the agony of the voiceless and exudes compassion and empathy for people condemned to languish on the margins of a society that does not care enough. It uses the fallout of a sudden lockdown to ruminate on the privileges we take for granted and the inequities we choose to ignore.
The gutsy, multi-pronged narrative, peppered with allusions to the idea of India, with its strengths and failings, lays bare the fractures and fissures that undermine the essence of a diverse and complex nation enervated by deep schisms.
Bheed opens with a harrowing sequence of exhausted, faceless people - it isn't a crowd, only a small group - walking along a rail track. As they lie down to rest, the shrill wail of a train whistle pierces the silence of the night. The sound soon merges with the wails of humans, a disquieting pointer to what is to come.
Anurag Saikia's music score, which later uses the high-pitched sound of a shehnai - it resembles an unsettling howl - that turns a lovemaking scene involving an unmarried inter-case couple into an evocation of the unease of nervous defiance rather than into an avowal of all-conquering passion.
Bheed is a testament to a time when the nation's underclass was thrown into the deep end without so much as a bare-minimum contingency plan. The sorry spectacle that played out in our cities and on our highways exposed our collective indifference to people exploited, marginalised and conditioned to accept their precarious plight.
The film is a vivid chronicle of many divides - between the government and the governed, the law and the common man, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the downtrodden, the sensitive and the callous - that are aggravated no end when the nation is hit by a crisis of the magnitude of a pandemic.
Bheed is a hard-hitting film that, in addition to being an act of courage, is an urgent plea to the privileged to shed their habitual complacency. It shows how a calamity can batter a society where marginalisation of the weak and othering of minorities are the norm.
The screenplay, written by Anubhav Sinha, Saumya Tiwari and Sonali Jain, lays bare the fault lines in a stark, austere manner. The acuity of the visuals is accentuated by Soumik Mukherjee's restive but unobtrusive camerawork and Atanu Mukherjee's editing rhythms, diluted somewhat by censor board-imposed excisions.
Notwithstanding the deletions, Bheed makes its point forcefully enough. Not that a film can change the way a nation thinks, but Bheed does a commendable job of telling a story - in fact, a bunch of stories - that simply needed to be told.
Parts of Bheed may feel a touch simplistic because it inevitably has to interpret complex issues in basic and instantly tangible terms, but not for a moment does the film about desperate people scrambling to return to their villages as state borders are sealed and the police are ordered to stop them appear anything less than pertinent.
With the aid of a terrific ensemble cast that is in perfect sync with the purpose of the film, Sinha crafts a portrait of a world where the poor and the powerless, irrespective of their caste identities, are left to fend for themselves.
Caste and power structures are jumbled up with intent to pit a Brahmin watchman against a Dalit policeman. The former, a village priest's son, is watchman Balram Trivedi (Pankaj Kapur). He is divested of his social capital.
The cop, a low-caste cop with an altered family name that conceals his identity, is Surya Kumar Singh. He is charged with imposing the will of the state on the men (and their families) who have hit the road without a clue about where it might lead.
Bheed is a follow-up to Sinha's Mulk and Article 15 in both thematic and creative terms. Like Mulk, it touches upon the subject of Islamophobia via a reference to the calumny heaped upon the Tablighi Jamaat during the pandemic. A group of Muslim men led by a bearded old man faces humiliation when he distributes food packets among stranded and starving migrants.
In the manner of Article 15, it captures the repercussions of caste violence on the defenceless through the back story of the male lead, who has personally suffered atrocities. And like both the films, Bheed falls back on multiple stories drawn from news reportage to weave its narrative.
A deserted shopping mall, fittingly named Lotus Oasis, serves as a metaphor for a bubble that becomes the site of a final impasse between the police and a man who decides to take the law into his hands in his fight to ward off hunger.
It is around this mall that almost the entire film plays out. The police hurriedly place barricades on the road outside the edifice - it is totally out of sync with the environs - and buses and other vehicles are stopped in their tracks. Tensions mount, tempers rise and the animated negotiations that ensue go nowhere.
Circle Officer Subhash Yadav (Ashutosh Rana) makes Surya the in-charge of the police post bypassing a Thakur, Ram Singh (Aditya Shrivastava) - a move whose effects manifest themselves in varied ways. That isn't the only caste fissure that Surya has to negotiate - the girl he loves is Renu Sharma (Bhumi Pednekar), a medical intern sent to the spot with test kits and medicines.
A small-time politician's relative believes that he and his men are above the law and that the barricades are for the less privileged. A lady (Dia Mirza) is desperate to reach her daughter's hostel before her estranged husband can get there.
A young girl (Aditi Subedi), saddled with an alcoholic father (Omkar Das Manikpuri), struggles to find a way out. Amid the pandemonium, a television reporter Vidhi Prabhakar (Kritika Kamra) is hard-pressed to do her job flummoxed as she is at how things are panning out.
The actors merge with the film's physical space to absolute perfection and achieve phenomenal emotional depth. Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Kapur deliver outstanding performances that enhance the impact of the film. The other cast members - notably Ashutosh Rana, Bhumi Pednekar, Dia Mirza and Aditya Srivastava - are no less effective.
One character, a cynical photojournalist, says: 'We are a sick society'. Bheed emphasises how that fear may not be baseless. It asserts that it isn't a virus alone that is to blame for what ails us. The malaise runs much deeper. Anubhav Sinha does not shy away from staring the rot in the face. Is there anything more exciting than a filmmaker who stands up to be counted?
Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, Dia Mirza, Ashutosh Rana, Pankaj Kapur and Kritika Kamra