The story is a dystopic one, yet not one from the future but from the recent past. It reminisces the year gone by where thousands of migrant workers across India were forced to walk to their villages hundreds of kilometres away upon the announcement of the nationwide lockdown in March as COVID-19 cases began to surge. Hundreds died as a result of these arduous journeys.
With shocking and gut-wrenching visuals, the migrant crisis is at the core of the new Disney-Hotstar documentary film 1232 KMS. Directed by Vinod Kapri, the film portrays some of the challenges faced by migrant workers upon the loss of livelihood. It was a human-made pandemic in its own right, resulting in India’s workforce being left in the throes of anger, anxiety and helplessness. And while the migrating millions were left to their own fate, the “richest became richer” – a final subterfuge of a society that no longer cares.
Following the story of seven Bihari migrants who decide to peddle their way home from Ghaziabad to Saharsa district in Bihar, Kapri captures two emotions experienced by them: disappointment in the government and anger at their helplessness. It highlights the challenges faced by them – and the collective labour force – and interrogates the legitimate question: How did we become so affluent, indifferent and inhuman in the urban space that we turned our eyes from the poorest? Were cities designed in such an exclusionary way? That they shut their doors on the ones who created them? Will we accept our absolute culpability in the social crime that we allowed to take place?
With the hope to find work and earn money, the migrants carried their equipment, one-two pairs of clothes, basic things, and disdain in their heart that they could not buy anything for their families in the village. As the documentary progresses, a heartfelt moments are seen where one of the labourers is seen missing his wife; while another labourer breaks down, teary-eyed towards the end of a video call with his mother, ‘Maa’.
The zooming of the lens on dirt when one of the migrants is bathing, or the pan shot of the messy, unhygienic isolation centre are deliberate, conscious attempts to provoke viewers about the conditions millions across India faced during those months.
The documentary also captures how many individuals and organisations helped the workers with food and shelter during their journey even as others were not all that welcoming. It also features how state machinery, government quarantine centres, and police constables are not often at the empathetic end of the spectrum. Rather than providing much-needed humanitarian aid, a police official, upon being requested for food, said: “If you have been hungry for eight days, then what’s the need to eat now?”
All through the film, the migrants show a determination to get home. “Ghar jayenge ya raste mein marr jayenge,” says one. Another exclaims, “There is no place in this country for the poor”.
The background music of the documentary is haunting, and lingers much after the film has ended. With lyrics penned by Gulzar, music composed by Vishal Bhardwaj and sung by Rekha Bhardwaj and Sukhwinder Singh, the evocative music hits hard; a longing to return. The migrants reach their homes ultimately, but the mirror has been cracked and can never be made again.
If lessons are not learned, the entire crisis will erupt again – the entire ‘chronology’ would be enacted – and yet again, we would find ourselves cocooned in our shelters, bereft of our souls.
Kalrav Joshi is a recent graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication and is fervently interested in politics, culture, development and art.
Featured image: Disney/Hotstar