The opening sequence of Anubhav Sinha’s Bheed is crushing. Literally. At the peak of the pandemic, when the world paused and locked itself in their homes, a group of distressed, dishevelled and desperate labourers from Delhi begin walking towards their villages. Some are sick, some are barefoot, children wail. Worn out from walking, the group falls into deep slumber on railway tracks. And you know what happens right at the crack of dawn. This is cinematic gold mine, as well as a filmmaker highly engaged with the world outside what Bollywood usually touches, at work — and at his best.
Like his last film Anek (2022), Anubhav Sinha’s new feature film Bheed, shot with documentary rigour and attention to detail in black-and-white by cinematographer Soumik Mukherjee, has a police officer (Ayushman Khurrana as Joshua) torn between conscience and duty. Anek is set in the Northeast — the Northeast of Sinha’s imagination, without specificity and context — and much like in all the later films of his career (Article 15, 2019; Mulk, 2018, and others), Sinha in Bheed is a cautioner and filmmaker engaged passionately with what’s problematic or ugly in society. All his films have a bit of button-pushing melodrama; Bheed has smidgens of it.
Besides the urgent, newsy tone, technical adroitness and compelling performances, Bheed is powerful because it takes us to a recent past that made us experience isolation and insularity in equal measure, and like never before. The film is set largely on the outskirts of Delhi, near a highway town, Tejpur, when thousands of migrant workers from villages neighbouring Delhi start walking towards their home — jobless and without support to survive during the first year of the pandemic — and get stranded on a dusty nowhereland adjacent to a deserted resort and mall.
Rajkummar Rao plays a young police officer who his boss (Ashutosh Rana) appoints as officer in charge of the police bastion near Tejpur. He is responsible for the fate of the migrants on feet, in overcrowded buses and choked water trucks who get stranded under his jurisdiction. His girlfriend (Bhumi Pednekar), a health worker, has left her home to be with him because her family won’t approve of the marriage between the two — the caste comes in the way. Pankaj Kapur plays the most resplendent and volatile role of a man feeling responsible for his brood, his village family, in a bus on their way home. Kritika Kamra plays an idealistic TV news journalist covering the scale of this mass migration, and Dia Mirza plays a mom on her way to get her daughter from a hostel in her SUV with her family driver.
At times, the journalistic ardour for details outweighs the drama, but there is still enough dramatic charge in Bheed. Sinha and his co-writers Sonali Jain and Saumya Tiwari depict police barbarity, state indifference and the crushing weight of poverty without much of a plot and enough emotional force. There is passion and compassion here, and Sinha’s film brings home what poverty and desperation mean, and conversely what love and humanity mean.
That the actors are also invested in the film’s heart is obvious. Besides Kapur’s rawness and radiance in his role, both Rao and Pednekar — excellent actors, as we have seen in the last several years — are believable and riveting in their personal-meets-political love story even without elaborate character graphs. Rana and Mirza are both competent, although both roles have a monotone stamp.
Mangesh Dhaka’s background score and Anurag Saikia’s rendition of the song Herail Ba lend the film Hitchcockian tension — the music emphasising, not embellishing the story, and used to further it.
Bheed is a powerful, powerful cinema that’s every bit worth a visit to the theatres.
Bheed released in theatres on Friday, March 24