A still from Bhakshak Image Credit: IMDB/Netflix

There are some films that are tough to watch because of the nature of the crime being chronicled, and Bhumi Pednekar’s ‘Bhakshak’ belongs to that bracket, delving into the rampant sexual abuse in a State-run shelter for minor girls. What disturbs you more is the realization that the movie is inspired by the real-life sordid 2018 Muzaffarpur Shelter Home Case.

Seasoned actress Bhumi Pednekar plays Vaishali Singh, a journalist in a small town in Patna determined to bring the predators (meaning Bhakshak) to light and, hopefully, behind bars. Along with Sanjay Mishra, who plays her cameraman, she runs a local news channel on the brink of bankruptcy. A tip-off from one of her sources, whom she pays for story pegs, alerts her to a report that points towards abuse at a government-funded shelter. Orphaned girls disappearing without a trace and the young inmates being drugged and violated are just scratching the surface.

Bhumi Pednekar and Sanjay Mishra play harried journalists in 'Bhakshak', out on Netflix

The opening scene, where a young girl dies after a demonic predator shoves red-chili powder in anger into her system, sets the tone of this chilling film. The coldness with which the warden disposes of the young woman’s dead body strikes hard. Director Pulkit does a neat job of shocking viewers with that provocative, but not entirely exploitative scene.

While the film is mostly about the dogged quest of one fierce woman’s quest to save those hapless and tortured orphans, it’s Vaishali’s personal life that had my heart. The pressure she faces from her in-laws to have a child, their disdain for her long hours at work, their lack of support towards her career, and her husband’s apathy towards her daily grind are wrought with emotions. There was one scene where Vaishali comes home late and her husband is frustrated about not having a decent home-cooked meal. Their squabble and Vaishali’s stern observation that he too can learn how to cook make you hot under the collar. This movie examines the dynamics of a married couple who are overwhelmed by the daily grind and a man’s deep-seated prejudices. The systemic patriarchy on display, especially in scenes where Vaishal takes on her husband’s surly family who can’t fully comprehend her passion for good storytelling, is a treat to watch. But the good part? They aren’t demonized indiscriminately. While you can’t agree with their point of view, you also understand the problematic place that they come from.

But the spine of the film is definitely her journalistic pursuits to expose the powerful abusers. Actors like Aditya Srivastava, who plays the shelter’s morally corrupt warden and evil incarnate Bansi Sahu, is loathsome and he doesn’t step out of his depraved space. While the blatant abuse of young women will rouse the activist in you, the film also reminds you of how the law enforcement officers are tied to protocol and heavy allegiance to the system.

Bhumi Pednekar is in top form in 'Bhakshak'

What makes this movie come alive are the collective stupendous performances led by Pednekar. Her Patna dialect and her helpless anger/frustration are achingly captured in ‘Bhakshak’. The scene in which she implores a young girl, a runaway from the shelter, to become her primary source and speak about her dark experiences on-camera is an emotionally-charged, stirring scene. Veteran actor Sanjay Mishra as the harried, hapless, but crafty cameraman is also in fine form. 

The movie would have benefitted hugely from trimming, especially the parts where Vaishali tends to pontificate on what’s the right thing to do. Her holier-than-thou monologues can get tiring, but you then remember the faceless girls without voices and her drill to evoke empathy doesn’t feel so shrill. When it gets overly didactic, you think of the real-life survivors and their battle for dignity. The least we can do is give a movie that has noble intentions and heart a chance. 

Gulf News rating:
Film: Bhakshak (Hindi)
Director: Pulkit
Cast: Bhumi Pednekar, Sanjay Mishra, Aditya Srivastav
Stars: 3 out of 5
Streaming on: Netflix