Anubhav Sinha’s black-and-white drama unfolds at a check post in north India and seeks to spotlight the vast losses and injustice that befell migrant workers when the nationwide lockdown, brought about by the covid-19 pandemic, was announced in 2020. The events that unfold at this police-monitored post is a microcosm, representative of a national event that resulted in a crushing loss of lives.
The film is set in the early days of the pandemic, when panic, misinformation and rumours are widespread. In order to prevent the movement of people, vehicles and the virus, a check-post is set up where various elements collide. The police are in charge, medics are testing and monitoring the ailing, politicians are flexing their muscles. While an affluent woman in her chauffeur driven SUV is willing to throw money to get her way around the problem, busloads of families and village folk are just trying to get back home. A news channel crew can be seen capturing snatches of the unfolding story.
The references to some of the early covid-19 protocols and the misinformation, which spread like wildfire through WhatsApp groups, seems satirical now, almost like a dark comedy. But there are also reminders of the madness and manipulation of information at that time. Police officer Surya (Rajkummar Rao) has been left “in-charge” by his senior Subhash Yadav (Ashutosh Rana). It’s a big opportunity for Surya but he’s ill-prepared for the drama that lies ahead. He’s burdened not just by the responsibility but also by the weight of his caste.
The roadblock is conveniently located near an unoccupied mall, constructed in the middle of nowhere, which becomes the location of a tense showdown. Bhumi Pednekar plays Renu, an upper caste doctor, who adoringly observes her lover Surya as he rises to the occasion, navigating through a stressful situation as impatient travellers get angry, children cry from hunger and the both sides of the roadblock become increasingly frustrated. Pankaj Kapur, who plays a watchman trying to shepherd his tribe back to their village, is a volatile de facto leader.
Other characters in the vicinity are Ram Singh (Aditya Srivastava), who is assisting Surya, Kritika Kamra as a news reporter, Dia Mirza as a mother trying to get to her daughter’s boarding school before her estranged husband does, Shushil Pandey as the chauffeur, and a young girl hustling to get her invalid father home. Rao, Pednekar, Kapur, Rana and Srivastava deliver sincere performances, which capture the chaos and confusion, the fear and irrationality of that time.
The choice to shoot in black-and-white works best when viewed through the lens of a photojournalist, capturing the faces of the helpless entrapped on the wrong side of the roadblock.
In one scene a character compares an overloaded truck, with its load tied down with jute strings, to the state of the nation. If the string breaks, it will unravel and scatter a community into a divided crowd, or bheed. It’s true of this film too. Writers Sonali Jain, Saumya Tiwari and Sinha’s script is held together by a string of ideas drawn from headlines and trending topics. Sinha is reputed for his works that speak for the marginalised. Bheed, too, exposes caste-based prejudice and vast class-based social injustice with pieces arranged for a big bang, only to splutter and subside, but not before raising some uncomfortable questions.