(Content warning: Mentions of sexual abuse)
The basic premise of Bhakshak is a cliché – a well-intentioned journalist with little to no backing takes on powerful men trying to keep the truth under wraps. But Bhakshak rises above its own premise because of its unfettered conviction in its own story.
Vaishali Singh (Bhumi Pednekar) is a small-town reporter who decides to open her own channel to distance herself from the pitfalls of working for a large organisation. She tries to cover stories of substance but alas, her channel barely gets any eyeballs. When her regular source gets her an audit report that is soon to become just another file gathering dust, her conscience doesn’t allow her to let that happen.
The story, inspired by the Muzaffarpur shelter-home case, is that of the sexual exploitation of several young children in a shelter home.
Bhakshak is not a perfect film but it’s an earnest one and in today’s ‘film space’ (if you will), that is distressingly a rarity. The film opens with a scene of such brutality that it can be disturbing to watch. To be honest, it does border on being exploitative but the way the film deals with the theme of sexual abuse overall is sensitive. Oftentimes, films or shows that deal with the subject of sexual violence tend to be exploitative – using horrible acts of violence against women and minorities for shock value which does more harm than good – but Bhakshak trusts its audience to be more empathetic. To not require this needless exploitation to get the obvious message.
Director Pulkit’s film, instead, focuses on the relationship between power and justice and the somber reality this relationship creates. The path to activism or honest journalism has never been as easy as it might seem from the outside and the film does right to not make it seem easy either.
This is not the story where a saviour will come in and everything will be alright in the end– this is the story of David and Goliath in the digital age where bravery isn’t as simple as a single act of resistance. But resistance is still one of the best ways to challenge evil. Bhakshak operates in that gray area.
The film doesn’t ignore Vaishali’s identity as a woman while trying to paint her as a hero – her family looks down upon her because she’s a woman, her seemingly supportive husband doesn’t hesitate to take away her agency when she acts against his wishes. She is, at the end of the day, operating in a patriarchal world. Part of her empathy also comes from not having the privilege to ignore what is happening at the shelter home.
Power and patriarchy enable the film’s main antagonist – the MLA Bansi Sahu (Aditya Srivastava). His acts are enabled by those in power and it makes him inherently terrifying. Srivastava, best known as the adorable Inspector Abhijeet in CID, brings a menace to his character here that isn’t easy to ignore. In this world of ‘just watch the movie for what it is and don’t think too much’, it’s refreshing to see a film really lean into how evil the villain is.
There is no redemption for Bansi Sahu – he is as bad as they come. At the same time, Vaishali’s husband’s redemption seems to come too easily – we don’t get an insight into his internal monologue.
Maybe that’s because we are meant to see it as a direct consequence of Vaishali’s passionate speech but it’s never that easy. Convenience is something that does crop up a few other times in the film. For instance, an eye witness is easily convinced (once again through passion) and her testimony feels too convenient. She doesn’t get the time to weigh out her options the way Vaishali’s character does.
Several times it feels like Vaishali is fighting a lost fight – Bhakshak doesn’t pretend like her fight is easy. The tension never leaves the screenplay; things could go wrong at any point in time. Will Vaishali succeed? Will the children get justice and will it last?
Even as you’re dealing with these questions, the film presents a moral question – have we stopped feeling grief when others are sad? A timely question to ask.
Let’s finally get to the lead actor’s performance. Bhumi Pednekar, to her well-deserved credit, is one of the few actors today who chooses films of substance. It is probably why she earned the tag of playing ‘headstrong small-town women’ – a demographic we rarely see represented in mainstream cinema. From Dum Laga Ke Haisha to films like Badhaai Do, Afwaah, Bheed, and the woefully underrated Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Pednekar has proved her mettle as an actor. This time is no different.
Vaishali Singh is a determined woman who is all too aware of the consequences her actions will have. She is constantly fighting a fear many others around her and giving into and this is reflected beautifully in how raw the performance is. Some of the more preachy scenes take away from Pednekar’s brand of relatability but it all comes together neatly.
Another noteworthy performance is that of Sanjay Mishra. I kept this at the end because it needs to be talked about in conjunction with Pednekar’s – that is the nature of their characters. Vaishali’s cameraman Bhaskar (Mishra) is her sounding board, her confidant, and her ally. Who can find fault in Mishra as an actor? The actors’ chemistry makes their bond on-screen all the more believable.
Films like Bhakshak face the danger of getting lost in the noise in a world that is increasingly choosing entertainment over substance, rarely realising that it doesn’t have to be either-or. Bhakshak has its flaws but its messaging is sincere enough to make it a film worth your time.
And while I usually hate monologues, Vaishali Singh’s closing monologue is too effective to ignore. If you give this film a shot, sit with your feelings afterwards. I would argue that what is even more important is to sit with the questions.