‘Bheed’ actors speak about COVID-19 in India, frontline workers, and resilience
On March 24, 2020, the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown as the threat of COVID-19 began to spread. India, a country of about 1.4 billion people(Opens in a new tab) at the time, faced a ripple of consequences that included the largest exodus of people since partition in 1947(Opens in a new tab). This mass movement consisted of migrant workers(Opens in a new tab), wanting to return to their homes(Opens in a new tab) and families before the lockdown, as curfews engulfed the country.
“…the lockdown is a severe crisis for India’s migrant labourers,” wrote(Opens in a new tab) Ritanjan Das, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, in April 2020. “Stories from the ground signal the advent of desperate times.”
It is these stories which were amalgamated to make Bheed, a drama that traces not only the journey of migrant workers during the outbreak of the pandemic, but scrutinizes prejudice and inequality in India. Directed by Anubhav Sinha, the movie stars Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar, and a whole cast of characters that hold distinctive roles in society, played by Dia Mirza, Pankaj Kapur, Kritika Kamra, and Ashutosh Rana.
“It was a great ensemble,” Rao tells Mashable, adding that “every character was very well etched out” from the beginning of production.
Dia Mirza in a still from ‘Bheed’.
Credit: Reliance Entertainment.
What is Bheed about?
In Bheed, the The White Tiger actor’s character Surya is a rising police officer who has to overcome obstacles including his personal prejudices as the COVID-19 pandemic takes over. This required Rao to work closely with the director in understanding Surya’s driving ideologies.
Meanwhile, Pednekar plays Renu, a junior doctor in a relationship with Surya, and says she meticulously researched the conditions those in the medical profession experienced during the outbreak of the pandemic.
“I read up more on the part, and it went beyond the physical strenuousness [doctors] went through,” she says. “You’re seeing excessive debt, you’re seeing excessive loss, you’re seeing shortage of supplies, you don’t know who deserves a [hospital] bed more than another person — people often forget those challenges, which were so so harsh.”
Described as a “searing”(Opens in a new tab), “painful pandemic drama”(Opens in a new tab), the film was shot entirely in black-and-white with the story taking place over the course of a day. Viewers are instantly thrown into a tense, uncertain world: a group of people walk across an empty railroad track, breaking what little bread they have. Later, scenes show even larger swarms of people (“bheed” literally translates to “crowd”) swept in chaos: police officers hit them with sticks as they rush to make buses home. Affluent people sitting in cars comment on the disarray they witness through glass windows.
Bheed was a deeply emotional shoot.
Pednekar explains that the film was shot at a time when the lockdown still felt “fresh,” meaning significant “emotional motivation” fuelled the cast’s performances.
“We have seen loss at home, we’ve seen loss around us, we have lived with the fear and the uncertainty of what the future is going to have in store for us, especially when COVID first hit us,” she says.
“To see those faces, [we saw] there was so much lingering pain. It would remind us of what everyone went through.”
Rao attests to this, saying that the making of Bheed was emotional itself.
“There are so many scenes in the film when you feel helpless about a certain character,” he says. However, Rao points out that these moments underscore themes of hope in the same breath. “We talk about hope, and in those trying times, those who came together for each other.”
Rao says there were between 500 to 800 extras on set daily, and “to see those faces, [we saw] there was so much lingering pain. It would remind us of what everyone went through.”
Bheed seeks to tell the untold stories of migrant workers.
For both actors, the film is largely about providing a truthful and crucial retelling of what migrant workers went through. Although a work of fiction, Bheed is rooted in a harsh reality.
“During the first lockdown, we all saw thousands of migrant workers walking back to their respective homes. Those visuals are pretty strong. But not many of us know what happened to them after that,” says Rao, adding that the story the film is telling hopes to delve into this ambiguous space.
Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar on the sets of the film.
Credit: Reliance Entertainment.
Pednekar expresses a similar sentiment, speaking of the resilience people embodied during the outbreak, in a time of fear and uncertainty. It’s this sense of resolve and determination the creative team hope to represent in the movie.
“When you set out on a journey that’s going to be at least hundreds of kilometers, and you don’t even know where your next meal is coming from…” she says. “It takes a lot of courage, and it just takes that want to be with your family, to protect them.”
Pednekar also takes time to acknowledge the many frontline workers, government officials, and advocates who played a crucial role in helping Indians at the time. The country’s infrastructure felt immense strain during both the first and second waves, with shortages spanning from hospital beds(Opens in a new tab) to oxygen to vaccines — despite being the largest manufacturer(Opens in a new tab) of COVID-19 vaccines in the world. Research around the impact of the pandemic on India’s marginalized communities(Opens in a new tab) is still emerging(Opens in a new tab). Migrant workers, many of whom have returned to urban locations to resume working, are said to have been failed by the country(Opens in a new tab) in the midst of crisis.
“I can’t even imagine what [the migrant workers] must have gone through,” Rao says. “But they wanted to go back home – the least they wanted was to go back to their respective houses. Hats off to their strength and to their willpower.”
Bheed is in cinemas from March 24.