Mumbai, 28 Mar 2021 2:07 IST
Almost exactly a year after the whole of India was locked down, Vinod Kapri's documentary shows how the lives of a large section of the population were overturned.
It is a simple story. Six labourers, in the midst of one of the most severe lockdowns in the world, decide to hop on to their newly purchased bicycles and head home. Home is Saharsa, Bihar, 1232 km from where they are in Ghaziabad, on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. They will face hunger, fatigue, the threat of an oppressive system that wants them to stay where they are, and a global pandemic without a cure. Vinod Kapri's 1232 KMS captures the journey of these men as they fight hell and high water to get to their families.
The documentary is simple, clear, and hard to watch, at least for those whose conscience is still alive. These are men and women who had already had their lives uprooted by the recession triggered by the pandemic. Their decision to go home using any available means was not driven by choice, but by hunger, oppression and apathy. You realize this when Ritesh speaks of his contractor getting goons to beat them up because they asked for money to go home. "We build your homes," they plead in one video, as they show empty utensils that showcase their desperation. Yet, the city they built gives them no space nor shows any kindness or empathy. "There is no place for the poor in India," is one line that hits the hardest.
A special mention for the songs by Vishal Bhardwaj, with lyrics by Gulzar, and the voices of Rekha Bhardwaj and Sukhwinder Singh — they are moving, powerful, and accompanied by the visuals land with double the force.
The lockdown in India saw close to 30 million people take to the roads, described by some as the biggest exodus since Partition. The tragedy of it having been caused by an elected government just makes the hit harder. As we watch them pedal their cycles through fatigue, over harsh roads, passing what seem like ghost towns, one can only wonder how alone they must have felt. Even through this journey, they are burdened by the thought of avoiding the cops, those upholders of the law, lest they get beat down.
Yet, unlike the system which coolly ignored these little men, the people on the street understand. From the kind dhaba owner who gives them a place to stay to the policeman who tries and gets a puncture kit for them, ordinary people exude humanity. This is in contrast to The System which imprisons the poor migrants, even as they arrive in their home district, and keeps them without food for hours. As one says, "As the government wills, we have to do, don't we?"
After all the challenges, our poor heroes only catch a glimpse of their families, mothers, children, as they are packed away to a quarantine centre. It is a moving but short meeting. For one minuscule moment, their journey feels consummated. Yet, as the final shot of worried faces behind the locked gate reveals, it does not end there.
The documentary is well shot and captures every part of the journey in an intimate, non-intrusive way. There are moments that make you question if it was right to make a film when people's lives were on the line. Then there are moments of simple humanity like a young man sharing the story of his mother saving money to get him educated, or their joy at finally taking a bath after five days. The journey is filled with challenges, extremes, but always optimism. When you set out on a journey of more than a thousand kilometres, optimism is your greatest weapon.
It is also a sharp pinprick to the conscience. In a year that has been transformative, many of us have had the privilege to simply shift our workplaces back home and carry on. Kapri's documentary is a reminder that for a large number of Indians, the year simply crushed their lives. Thirty-two million Indians were thrust back into abject poverty by the lockdown. Many of the migrant labourers who left still live in limbo, with no certainty of employment if they return, and no means of improving their lives back home. Yet, a section of India seems to have conveniently forgotten all this and moved on. And there will be no reminders of the migrants who died on the way. The government does not even have that data.
At the end of it, one has to sit down and rate this documentary. This feels redundant. Some documentaries simply remind you of your privileged luxury, making you feel a tiny bit ashamed. Perhaps, a bit of shame is necessary. It is a reminder that you still have a conscience and ought to do something.
1232 KMS is available for viewing on Disney+ Hotstar.
Related topicsDisney+ Hotstar
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