Bheed review – lockdown thriller cuts across India’s class conflict

‘No one ever plans for the poor,” says a young police officer in this tense, painful pandemic drama from India. Shot in black and white, it’s set at the start of the government-imposed lockdown in May 2020 that led to the exodus of 10 million migrant workers from India’s cities. The police officer has been put in charge of a rural roadblock to stop poor workers returning to their families and villages – preventing the spread of the virus. But realising that no help is arriving, the crowd, feeling hungry and abandoned, get angry. The results are explosive, exposing the fault lines of caste prejudice and class conflict.

The officer Surya (Rajkummar Rao), is himself from a lower-caste family, but he’s climbing the ladder; he is a competent, decent cop who refuses kickbacks or bribes (just what a modern police force needs). Still, his boss never lets him forget his place, and we see how Surya has internalised prejudice too. All of society turns up at his checkpoint. A rich upper-caste woman (Dia Mirza) waltzes over accompanied by her driver, fully expecting to sail through. A young woman who worked as a maid in the city risks her life to get her alcoholic father home to their village. There’s an elderly security guard travelling on a bus; then a film crew arrives from a TV news channel.

Taking a scalpel to the caste system, director Anubhav Sinha exposes how sub-castes and other divisions stamp out solidarity. Everyone at this checkpoint is blaming each other. A Hindu man rants at a Muslim man, accusing Muslims of spreading the virus. The situation is like a petrol spill – waiting for a match to be lit. Though when it happens, disappointingly, after so much complex, tough drama, it goes off with more of a fizzle than a bang.

• Bheed is released in cinemas on 24 March.