‘Bheed’: Grim Reminder of Recent Tragedy

By Shubhra Gupta

One of the most shattering sights of the Covid-19 pandemic was the flood of people suddenly rendered rudderless by the announcement of one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world — chief amongst those were daily wagers, and blue collar workers who would starve if they couldn’t go out to their jobs. With no public transport available, they began the long walk home, some carrying all their worldly goods in plastic sacks, with their children, or the elderly, in tow. That the trek under the relentless summer sun of 2020 was going to be long and arduous didn’t seem to deter the migrants. The refrain was common: if I have to die, I want to be where I belong.

Anubhav Sinha’s ‘Bheed’, shot in greyed-out B&W, is a grim and necessary reminder of this recent tragedy, which already seems like a throwback. It’s clearly a case of pushing back memories of difficult times so they do not overwhelm the present. It’s also got to do with the concerted white-washing that began in right earnest — to take culpability and responsibility away from the state — even while the pandemic was raging. And some of that, being force-fitted into the narrative, seems to have taken the sting out of Sinha’s recreation.
Starting your film with the mandatory ‘poori tarah kaalpnik hai’ (it is completely imaginary) may be a pragmatic necessity, but taking the specificity out by not using names defeats the purpose — in which ‘pradesh’ is ‘Tejpur’ (the place where most the proceedings take place)? The declaration of the pandemic in the PM’s voice is missing (it was in the original trailer, but is replaced by another in the new one) and instantly that moment, which changed the lives of so many of us so drastically, becomes anodyne

The film begins with a striking shot of humans milling about on screen, desperate to find a way out, piled on top of buses, cycles, anything that moves. You can see why it was tempting to use the analogy of the Partition (which Sinha had to excise from the film; there are a few other bits which feel censored). With the context missing, this well-intentioned, lest-we-forget film becomes less than its powerful moving parts.

In many ways, ‘Bheed’ feels like a companion piece to ‘Article 15’, in which Sinha had raised the scourge of caste effectively, but was called out for doing it through the prism of an upper caste ‘hero’. In this one, he does a course correction by making the lower caste Surya Kumar Singh Tikas (Rajkummar Rao) — who hides his origins under the honorific ‘Singh’ because that’s what his father did — the person who is ‘in-charge’. But how can a man like Tikas, buoyed by his cop uniform but living with a permanent fear of being found out, actually be in charge, surrounded by the Sharmas and Trivedis who fling the hierarchy of their birth in his face? When Rajkummar Rao, in a stand-out performance as Tikas, cries out, ‘hamein bhi hero banana hai’, it sears,

It is his story which is the most interesting in this ensemble piece, which has a host of characters, all stuck at this barrier created by a lethal virus, and an even more lethal caste system, which overrides class. On one side are the high born, wealthy people like a mother (Dia Mirza) making a dash in her fancy SUV to pick up her daughter from her hostel before her husband gets there; a watchman called Balram Trivedi (Pankaj Kapur) who is so full of bile and bigotry that he will not allow his hungry companions to eat the food served from a Muslim man (the Tablighi Jamaat being virus-spreaders is mentioned: remember how viral WhatsApp forwards and venomous TV anchors spread that rumour?); a TV reporter (Kritika Kamra) and her crew become the voice of the liberal, but misguided urbanites who don’t understand or care to parse the divisions on the ground; Tikas’s superior (Ashutosh Rana) who has great knowledge of minute social divisions (‘acchha tum Tikas ho,’ he tells Surya, ‘hum toh Somas samjhe thay’), but has little empathy for others not as privileged as him. The trouble with making people ‘types’, representative of their class/caste, is evident in the way they declaim, their self-serving statements coming off as dialogues than conversation.

There are some faces in the crowd that the camera stays on more than the others. A girl accompanying her alcoholic father home, emerging from a cement mixer, gets more time than the others. And then you move along, with the ‘bheed’, as the people are pushed and shoved and showered by dehumanizing canons of disinfectant, their feet bleeding: the sight of that droplet of blood leaves you with that same angry, sick feeling as it did back then, when you saw that image in the newspaper.

What you are left with most vividly is Tikas and his love for a local doctor called Renu Sharma (Bhumi Pednekar), whose surname says it all. I wanted more of these two, and left the theatre wondering what happens to them when they do pick up the courage to go to her village, and confront her father. Will they be left alive, or will age-old prejudice kill them? Rajkummar Rao’s face, so full of the pain and injustice he has been forced to internalise all his life, finally acknowledges and embraces who he is: that face, in the generic ‘bheed’, becomes a despairing yet hopeful beacon for our times.

Cast: Ashutosh Rana, Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Kapur, Bhumi Pednekar, Dia Mirza, Virendra Saxena, Kritika Kamra
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Bheed movie
Rating: 2.5 stars — Indian Express