Journalism is one of the pillars of democracy, apparently. In a functioning democracy, journalists are supposed to hold those in power responsible for not doing their jobs properly. They are supposed to look into scams and highlight fraudulent activities, regardless of their scale. And they should be the voice of the voiceless, simply because that’s the right thing to do. But all the way back in 2000, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani explicitly showed what could happen to a country if journalists catered to industrialists and the flag-bearers of religious politics. The film flopped, nobody cared about its message, and now, two decades later, we are living in a reality that’s worse than the one predicted by Aziz Mirza, Sanjay Chhel, Raaj Kumar Dahima, and Manoj Lalwani. Bhakshak seems to be yet another attempt at taking investigative journalism back to its roots. Does it succeed or fall flat on its face? Let’s find out.
Pulkit’s Bakshak, which he has co-written with Jyotsana Nath, is loosely based on the Muzaffarpur shelter case. The film opens with a guy called Sonu killing a girl who has been sexually assaulted by Pappu Thekedar. A few months later, a journalist named Vaishali Singh gets a tip from Guptaji about a NISS report (not to be confused with the actual NISS that exists in the USA because the makers of the film have frivolously changed the name from TISS to NISS while using the official logo of TISS) regarding the illegal activities going on in the shelter homes in Munawwarpur (name changed from Muzaffarpur).
Initially, Vaishali doesn’t show a lot of interest because Guptaji isn’t a good source and, in the past, he has given her information that has turned out to be false. But when it becomes apparent to her that her husband, Arvind, wants her to shut down her small news channel because she hasn’t gotten her big break despite investing 3 years into it, she decides to look into the Munawwarpur Shelter Home Case. As soon as Vaishali and her cameraperson-cum-reporter, Bhaskar Sinha, show up at one of the shelter houses and visit CWC (Child Welfare Committee), Bansi Sahu (the leader of Jan Seva Dal, owner of three newspapers, and the founder of the NGO that’s running the shelter for girls in Munawwarpur) starts to send out threats, which are implicit and explicit in nature. That’s when Vaishali understands that she is onto something, and she has to ensure that the girls who are being wronged get justice and that Bansi and his cohorts are jailed as soon as possible.
If you read the details of the Muzaffarpur shelter case, you’ll realize that the screenplay of Bhakshak is a very watered-down version of it. Since it’s a fictional film that is based on real-life events, I won’t blame Jyotsana and Pulkit for messing with its chronology. But I will question their messy commentary, even though a rundown of the original case makes it apparent that the complacency of the government, the judiciary, and the law enforcement agencies is the central theme. Instead of doubling down on that, Jyotsana and Pulkit try to make it all about journalism.
A huge chunk of the screenplay plays out like a big-budget episode of Crime Patrol, a TV show whose main agenda is to instill fear in women for daring to move out while not pondering on why women have to move out in the first place and why their homes, villages, cities, and country aren’t a safe space for them. And when it seems like the time has arrived for a good dose of comeuppance, while showing that implementing a law that punishes the monsters that live around us isn’t easy, Jyotsana and Pulkit turn their protagonist towards the camera, put the onus on society, and call it a day. If that isn’t an oversimplification of the weirdly complex mechanics that allow such atrocities to happen on a daily basis, then I don’t know what is. But maybe this oversimplification is a symptom of a larger problem that’s plaguing the entertainment industry.
Bhakshak’s tone swings wildly between Spotlight levels of seriousness and Oh Darling Yeh Hai India’s brand of subtlety (the symbol of the Jan Seva Dal is an inverted pentagram, i.e., the sign of Satan). Hence, the final product is just bland. Along with cinematographer Kumar Sourabh and editor Zubin Sheikh, Pulkit doesn’t craft a single scene that has any kind of emotional heft to it. They throw in a bunch of songs in the hopes of generating some kind of sentiment. And by the time the credits start rolling, I start wondering if Bollywood has straight-up forgotten how to punch up.
Back in the day, movies like Rang De Basanti and Nayak explicitly criticized politicians and the bleakness that exists beyond the walls of the movie theater. Nowadays, movies like Jawan and Bhakshak try to hold some small politicians accountable within the parameters of their narrative and then show that the bigger politicians are the personification of gods and angels who are there to congratulate the protagonists and assure the public that such crimes will never happen again. Is that how it is? No. Then why are we being lied to? Filmmakers like Pulkit are too scared to irk those who sit in ivory towers, despite claiming to be the faces of democracy, and are okay with stating the equivalent of “water is wet” through their stories. And since they can’t punch up by advocating for free speech and freedom of expression, they want the audience to do their work for them.
That said, what truly blurs the lines between reel and real is the presence of Bhumi Pednekar. Without risking the existence of this website and my career, I’ll say that Bhumi has a lot of influence in real life. She has access to people who can bring about major reforms that can help the general public in a huge way. However, said people are also associated with certain individuals who are as bad as Bansi Sahu and Mithilesh Sinha. However, instead of using her influence to tell those people to do better or simply disassociating from them, she is going to them to promote her film while she lectures the public about how they should fight against perpetrators who have politicians, the police, and the judges in their pockets in Bhakshak. Do you or don’t you smell the hypocrisy? At this point, you can’t even separate the art from the artist because the artist herself wants the audience to not separate her from her art and her politics (every form of art is political, by the way). So, what do you do? Well, call out Bhumi’s hypocrisy, for starters, and then talk about the quality of the acting, which isn’t all that good. As for the rest of the cast, they are fine. They do their job. They hit their marks. They don’t try to rise above the absurdly dull dialogue writing. If they are happy with that, who am I to complain?
Political movies are still being made. It’s not like there has been a shift in the market that has stopped the production of political movies. It’s just that all the aggression is being reserved for the masses, who are synonymous with a certain regressive brand of majoritarianism that includes appeasing the authorities and punching down on minorities. Meanwhile, those who are looking forward to some progressive politics are getting self-serious and virtuous (but in a very hollow way) films like Bhakshak and then being shamed for watching the movie, too. It’s such a lose-lose scenario that even thinking about it is tiring. So, if you want to learn about the Muzaffarpur shelter case, read about it instead of spending all your brain cells on this horribly paced and underwritten film. Follow independent news channels that are reporting on issues that concern all of us, e.g., unemployment, inflation, education, etc. And don’t give your attention and hard-earned money to “artists” who are best buddies with the most degenerate sections of society and bow down to them at the drop of a hat.