'Bhakshak' film review: Bhumi Pednekar's gritty drama is imperfect but important

'Bhakshak' may have some flaws but its hard-hitting take on an issue should shake us out of our stupor

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Sat 10 Feb 2024, 9:48 AM

Last updated: Sun 11 Feb 2024, 12:18 PM

In an era of too much information, social media-induced numbness and ultra-limited attention spans, sometimes, there comes news that shakes society out of its collective stupor. The Muzaffarpur shelter home rape case of 2018 – the racket that inspired this Netflix film - was one such incident.

In 2018, a research report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) brought to light the shocking sexual abuse of young women and children in a shelter home run by a politician in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India. The case – a perfect example of an ineffective, corrupt system, an inept media and brutal political power crushing society’s most vulnerable - caused outrage for a while before the news cycle pedaled on to some other TRP-generating drama.

Director Pulkit uses this well-documented story as the premise for Bhakshak, meaning predator. However, here, it’s not just the monsters who abuse children who are the predators. The larger predator is the ‘system’ which, instead of providing justice to the weak, uses those very mechanisms to protect the perpetrators. Though it does not reference the case directly, the movie merges fact and fiction. So Muzaffarpur becomes Munawwarpur, TISS becomes NISS and the original institute’s Koshish project (which did the audit of the homes) becomes the name of the TV channel that exposes the crime.

Bhakshak begins well. The opening scene is that of an abuse and murder which hits you in the gut and gives an indication of the horrors that are waiting to unfold. The mood is grim in the dusty lanes of Munawwarpur, the seedy shelter home is full of leery men and scared girls, and the dangerous darkness reflect zero hope. Our protagonist, an intrepid journalist, Vaishali Singh (Bhumi Pednekar) , operates from this scenario. Aided by only a stoic cameraman, Bhaskar Sinha (Sanjay Mishra), she sets out to unravel the scandal.

Needless to say, she faces every obstacle possible, from threats by the criminals to an unsupportive patriarchal family. Yet the spirited Vaishali marches on undeterred, almost becoming an activist while using her journalistic skills to spread the news.

Pulkit and his cowriter Jyotsna Nath have their heart in the right place. But more than the legal system, they place their faith is in activist-journalism. The screenplay recognises the ills ailing the media including the dependence on virality to get noticed, and it almost seems the makers are making a plea to the media to do its job. Bhumi plays the idealistic journalist much in the mould of filmi journalists of the past with their mix of lecture, sincerity and bravado.

However, this overt tonality is also Bhakshak’s undoing. After the stellar beginning, the film begins to get predictable. We know Vaishali and Bhaskar’s next steps, what they are likely to face and how they will emerge out of it.

While the work they put in is engrossing to watch, the one-note characterisation jars. Everything is black and white, with zero shades of gray. And some solutions come off too easily. A speech by Vaishali is all it takes to get a young scared victim to spill the beans on what went on in the house. A cunning officer gets easily fooled by a fake story narrated by Bhaskar to cause a rift among the bad guys. Vaishali’s chauvinistic husband undergoes a change of heart almost miraculously. Most disappointingly, while the movie is about abused girls, not a single one of them is given a voice. Their plight is heart-rending but they remain mere dots on this film’s landscape just as they remained statistics in real life. Whether that was a deliberate choice of the script, is something only the filmmaker can answer but the lack of the survivor’s narratives in their own voices robs the film of a powerful element. Instead, we get a monologue by Vaishali appealing to awaken society’s sleepy conscience in a fourth wall breaking scene, reminiscent of Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawaan. Again, full marks for the intention, but somehow it does not fully work.

That said, Bhakshak is an important film with incredible performances. Bhumi Pednekar is wonderful and earnest, effectively portraying a woman who is willing to go the extra mile for justice. It’s really impressive to see her movie choices. She is ably supported by the ever-reliable Sanjay Mishra who plays the world-weary cameraman with easy aplomb. But the spotlight must go to Aditya Shrivastava, who plays the creepy founder of the shelter home with remarkable menace. Sai Tamhankar, in the role of a sympathetic police officer, is great as always but has an underwritten role.

More than anyone else, Bhakshak should be a must-watch for the media. If nothing else, it may serve as a reminder of what the fourth estate can achieve, if it really set out to do its job.

Rating: 3 stars

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