Bhakshak portrays the plight of local journalists, particularly the ones who don’t have sprawling offices spanning acres or the muscle power of an industrialist baron backing them financially
Bhakshak opens with screams of a woman who is being violated by a man in a shelter meant for young orphaned girls. After raping the woman, the two men in charge of the shelter take her to a ground where she is cremated alive — an incident which is a chilling reminder of the Hathras rape case in 2020 where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gangraped by four upper-caste men. After her death, her body was forcibly cremated in the dead of the night by UP police, without the consent of her family.
Based on Muzaffarpur Balika Grih rape case of 2018, Bhakshak follows Vaishali Singh (played by Bhumi Pednekar, with a fitting Bihari accent) and Bhaskar Singla (essayed by the legendary Sanjay Mishra), two journalists from a local news channel who try to break a news story as the administration thwarts their attempts to hold power to account.
Vaishali, having refused to sell her soul to the national media houses, has decided to start her news venture from scratch and cover local news in Patna. Filming her bulletins with dilapidated equipment is Bhaskar (Mishra) who is part-time production assistant, part-time tea enthusiast. The camaraderie between Vaishali and Bhaskar is earnest — the two appear more professional colleagues than a father-daughter duo.
The poor state of hyperlocal media
Bhakshak offers a realistic portrayal of the plight of local journalists, particularly the ones who don’t have sprawling offices spanning acres or the muscle power of an industrialist baron backing them financially. As Vaishali knocks one door after another to unearth the truth about the sexual abuse in a shelter, she realizes a bitter truth — the legacy media can crush local journalists because they not only have more resources but better access. “Kaun baat karega humse (Who will speak to us)?” asks a helpless Bhaskar at one point.
A commentary on the poor state of local and hyperlocal news media in India, Bhakshak shows how journalists reporting on local issues have much less to gain monetarily and more to lose as they try to uncover sex rackets and incidents of child abuse.
Each time Vaishali and Bhaskar lose hope, their informant and source Gupta ji (played by an effortlessly humorous Durgesh Kumar) springs into action with his witty commentary and pointed jibes. He reminds the duo that journalism is, at its core, an act of courage. Kumar is an absolute scene-stealer and brings in much-needed comic respite in a film which can be otherwise very triggering to watch given the subject matter it deals with.
“Why don’t you sell Litti Chokha on the streets? Or open a grocery store? Why bother with journalism?,” Gupta remarks snarkily in an attempt to awaken the conscience of Vaishali and Bhaskar. The banter between Gupta and Bhaskar in the latter half of the film is tongue-in-cheek and effortlessly humorous. The jibes taken by two men at each other flow so naturally that after a while, it seems like Sanjay Mishra and Durgesh Kumar improvised them on the set.
Has its heart in the right place
As for Bhumi Pednekar, who, with Sonchiriya (2019), Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), Bala (2019), Bheed (2023) has played several women characters from the hinterlands, one cannot expect her to go wrong since the genre is pretty much her forte at this point.
Post-Thank You For Coming (2023), I was wary of watching a film headlined by Pednekar, especially since it has become abundantly clear that the actress is trying hard to break free from her ‘small town role’ image. I am happy to report that Pednekar succeeds in the film with a convincing portrayal of a woman journalist who isn’t afraid to stand her ground. She isn’t loud or shrill and yet intimidating because she carries that strength in her demeanour.
Aditya Srivastav plays Bansi Sahu, the evil mastermind who runs the girls’ shelter and plays an active role in abusing minors. Srivastava executes his role to perfection — he is as menacing, unhinged and repulsive as one would expect a child predator to be. His maniacal laugh towards the end when he heads into the police van is spine-chilling.
Directed by Pulkit and co-written by Pulkit and Jyotsana Nath, Bhakshak has its heart at the right place but has its flaws. Not once are we told the backstories of young girls locked up in the shelter — how did they end up at the dungeon? What are their dreams, their aspirations? We aren’t told their names either. The film, instead of drawing attention to the survivors of child sexual abuse, keeps much of its focus on celebrating those who are rescuing the young women in the outside world — the female cop, lawyers, journalists.
Survivors reduced to mere faces in a dark
Not that they don’t deserve to be celebrated, but shouldn’t a film on sexual abuse survivors also tell us about their stories? In Bhakshak, the survivors are reduced to mere faces in a dark, dingy room. The gaze is that of an outsider and the trauma of an abuse survivor doesn’t really translate on screen.
Therefore, it is not a surprise that when these young girls finally walk out of the abusive shelter, a scene which should have had an emotional impact or perhaps made one cry, falls flat. Perhaps, a few personal identifiers like their names or personal histories would have humanized them.
Bhakshak ends with a monologue by Vaishali where she holds a mirror to the viewers of her channel. She chides them for being complacent and not raising their voice against the many injustices in the country. One is instantly reminded of journalist Ravish Kumar and his Primetime anchoring where he would often call out his viewers for not being aware of what’s happening in the nation.
“Media will show you only what gets them TRP. A well-dressed anchor will show you the recap and concluding part of the story but the truth…I can’t say. Rather than listening to the news of the rape survivors, we’d cover our ears. We’d rather listen to spicy, entertaining news which increases the TRP of news channels. Don’t think too much about it. If you do, your sympathy will wake up. Let it sleep. Do you still consider yourself a human, or are you a Bhakshak?”, asks Vaishali as the screen fades to black.
Bhakshak is streaming now on Netflix