Bheed movie review: Pandemic-induced migration and intersecting socio-economic vulnerabilities

Every time this [overloaded jute] truck drives over bumpy ground, there is a fear that the jute might split at the seams and from a society held together, we will be a divided crowd (bheed)”.

THE comparison of an overloaded jute truck with a divided crowd is in reference to the COVID pandemic and homebound migrant workers made by reporter Vidhi Prabhakar (Kritika Kamra) in Anubhav Sinha’s movie Bheed

Sinha is also known for other social dramas like Article 15 starring Ayushmann Khurrana.

Bheed is a black-and-white social drama in Hindi, highlighting the grim realities of migrant workers wanting to return home amidst the lockdown, through the intersectionality of social evils that have plagued subcontinental society for long.

The story is set thirteen days after the sudden declaration of the first COVID-induced lockdown in March 2020 when more migrant workers braved the road than all the masks or sanitisers the government could produce.

The movie shows how the pandemic sharpened social divisions and prejudice such as caste-based discrimination, Untouchability and Islamophobia across the country. 

The movie’s opening scene about 16 migrant workers being run over by a train while they are sleeping on the railway track sets a morose tone which goes on to unravel pandemic-influenced migration. 

Bheed’s initial trailer made a parallel reference to the India–Pakistan Partition. The comparison was eventually censored as it did not sit well with the government.

The movie weaves together many different stories through the intersecting socio-economic realities of the pandemic, such as that of a distraught mother who wants to bring her child back from the hostel with the help of her driver; a young girl left to take care of her alcoholic father; three reporters covering the migrant workers’ crisis; a Muslim gathering accused of spreading COVID in India; the police officers at the checkpoint; doctors and healthcare workers; and most importantly; the migrant workers who braved the road less travelled. 

The police officer

One of the protagonists, Surya Kumar Singh Tikas (Rajkumar Rao), is the officer-in-charge posted at the ‘Tejpur’ checkpoint to prohibit migrant workers from crossing a state border. 

Even as a police officer, caste remains fundamental to his existence because he is often reminded that he belongs to a marginalised caste. When he is given a case where a fellow marginalised-caste man named Sudama has been beaten up because he had touched the hand-pump near a temple, for the excuse that he may be suffering from COVID, Tikas can identify with Sudama’s plight.

Tikas has a tough job. His lived experience tells him to be empathic to the sufferings of migrant workers. But as a police officer, he has to maintain law and order, which means following instructions of his superiors even when they don’t make much sense to him personally. 

Tikas is brought up with the knowledge never to cross a certain invisible line that differentiates him from the rest of society. As Shiv Yadav (Ashutosh Rana), who is a senior in police, once tells him, “Tradition demands those who defy caste and class get their asses whipped. Every wound marks the boundary that defines one’s place in society.

But when he is faced with a situation where a group of police officers sprays sanitiser on the migrant workers, he immediately stops the inhumane treatment against the migrant workers.  

The Mother

Another protagonist is a mother Geetanjali (Dia Mirza), who is stuck with migrant workers on her way to pick up her daughter from a hostel.

Geetanjali’s understanding of the migrant workers’ crisis is typical of people sitting in the comfort of their homes because they could afford it. Tellingly, she wonders aloud over a phone call with her daughter, “Navya, there are thousands and thousands of people on the road. I do not know why they are risking their lives like this. I guess they have high immunity.” 

To this, her driver Kanhaiyya (Shushil Pandey) replies: “We are used to it”.

The migrant workers

Balram Trivedi (Pankaj Kapur), who works as a car washer, along with Hari Dubey (Virendra Saxena), a security guard are also stuck at the Tejpur checkpoint with countless other working class men and women. When Dubey informs Trivedi that all state borders have been sealed, the latter asks “[There are] borders within our country?” 

Trivedi and their fellow travellers keep chasing the mirage of an ‘emergency meeting’ held by the government to ensure migrant workers reach back home safely, helpfully dangled before their eyes through false ‘WassApp forwards’. 

The migrant workers are willing to pay their remaining savings for an opportunity to go home. They jump at the opportunity of smuggling their and their families’ tired, famishing bodies over anything on wheels— buses, goods vehicles, even concrete mixer trucks. But every road leading to their homes has been closed.

While many waited near the checkpoints, galloping canards that “Delhi’s Tabhlighi Jamaat is spreading the deadly virus in other states” ran faster than rumours about home-made remedies to cure COVID.

Also read: Fighting BJP and RSS Communalism the Jamiat Way – The Leaflet 

Even when Trivedi’s group is left with no food to eat, they willingly reject the food offered by a group of Muslim men. Instead, Trivedi accuses them of spreading COVID. 

The policemen help in exaggerating these canards. One of the policemen informs Tikas that he suspects that these Muslim men could be infected with the coronavirus. 

Tikas asks the police officer if they could only see that they are Muslims without knowing where they are travelling from. He says, “Even Corona has a religion now.

But, COVID does have a religion and a caste because one’s status is determined by one’s ability to get a bed at the hospital, Shiv Yadav (Tikas’s senior) puts it. 

As per Shiv Yadav, if a person survives, they go back home. If they do not, they will be burned in plastic shrouds. 

Everyone stuck at the border comes with certain prejudice that turns out to be a disadvantage for others. 

When Trivedi is left with no option, he decides to steal food from the food court in the mall near the checkpoint. Once he threatens to do that, he is deemed a Naxalite by the police officers. He says: “Asking for food makes me a Naxal?

Tikas is yet again faced with an unusual situation because he cannot let Trivedi steal the food. When a fight erupts between Tikas and Trivedi,the latter, who is a bigoted patriarch, says, “You people are unworthy of your uniform. You Tikas, do not forget who you are!”. Once again, Tikas has to wear his caste like the proverbial albatross around his neck. 

The film is a necessary reminder that the pandemic did not affect everyone equally. But at the same time, it ends on a hopeful note. In the end, everyone came together to arrange food for people stuck at the checkpoint. 

Whenever that happens, the overloaded jute truck does not have to worry about driving on bumpy roads.

The Leaflet