It is a well known fact that migrant workers faced a state of crisis following the Covid-19 lockdown last year. This ‘new normal’ had forced them to cover long distances often on foot in order to reach their native villages. Director Vinod Kapri revisits the issue in his latest documentary 1232 KMS.
Image Credits: @Hotstar.com
Analysis of the Documentary
The documentary is regarding the journey of seven migrant labourers from Ghaziabad to Saharsa in Bihar when the Indian government imposed a nation-wide lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, rendering them jobless, homeless, and hungry. It also highlights the challenges of the migrant labourers. The title of the documentary is apt because it focuses on the human cost of the issue. It does not get into socio-political debates. In a segment, one of the migrants talks about missing his wife's company, while another talks about his mother. This evokes the maa sentiment. The documentary also highlights that there were some people who were humane and helped the workers with food and shelter while there were some who were not at all welcoming.
There was a marked difference between the journalists and Kapri. Journalists took risks by going outdoors and walking with the labourers for a few kilometres but Kapri accompanied the labourers till they reached their hometown in Saharsa. The central government has denied any accountability on the matter by stating that there is no such data with them. In that context, Kapri's documentation of the crisis becomes all the more important.
Kapri introduces the characters of his documentary, Ritesh, Ashish, Ram Babu, Mukesh, Krishna, Sonu, and Sandeep, most of whom worked as construction labourers in Ghaziabad. After somehow managing to last through the first month of lockdown, when faced with the possibility of starving for two more months, these labourers arranged bicycles for themselves to pedal hundreds of kilometres each day, with little to no food, battling paralysing fatigue, and also trying to evade the government authorities. Kapri gives outlines and details of all the labourers. Ritesh's brother went missing in Delhi, and as he cycles towards his village he says in the most unsentimental tone, "At least one of us needs to be around, when the parents pass." Ashish is a BA graduate, confined to the life of a daily-wager because of circumstances back home including an alcoholic father. He shares an anecdote about how his mother would encourage him to study despite the problematic situation at home. This vividly shows that the dearth of jobs for the educated youth forces them to take jobs in the primary sector. As Kapri followed them, they struggled with tire punctures and unhinged chains, which they solved themselves. A dhaba owner opens his eatery for the migrants and allows them to spend the night there. A few truck drivers offer them lifts, risking the anger of the police officers. If there's one thing Kapri's documentary more than successfully delves into, it's the working-class' distrust of the government machinery. Ritesh had a mobile phone with an app that would help them show the way but the GPS does not tell you the condition of the village roads. They dared not take the highway because the police were beating people for breaking the lockdown. But, it is the villagers who guide these seven men along the back roads. It probably made their journey longer. One of them goes on to say, "Mar jayenge woh toh theek hai, lekin police wale ke haath nahi aayenge”. They would rather die, than be “rescued” by the law enforcement.
The 86-minute narrative has been expertly stitched together by the editor Hemanti Sarkar. The most striking display of Sarkar’s skill at creating drama without being heavy-handed takes place after the migrants reach Bihar and are sent to a quarantine centre. All the men lose their cool after being locked up at a quarantine facility on the Bihar border, which doesn't seem to have been cleaned recently. "What if we catch the virus over here?" someone asks. "Why are you treating us like we are animals?" Sonu asks angrily.
It is an existential question everyone should be asking. And, it is not just directed to the politicians. Even though Gulzar’s lyrics and Vishal Bhardwaj’s music help the tears flow with a lovely plaintive song about homecoming, one question remains: will we ever learn to treat the not-so-fortunate as humans? However, in a later part of the journey, Ritesh also tells the camera how his “rage” has evaporated once he's near home. Kapri appears to have restricted himself to the role of an empathetic fellow traveller. This approach increased the documentary's credibility and its claim of being an observational work. The documentary is a reminder to us of our privilege. It also exposes the bare reality of the poor people of our country and the police brutality they face. There is a scene where a police officer is saying "agar aath din tak bhookhe rehte ho toh abhi bhi bhookhe reh jao kya dikkat hai".
The documentary states that the seven had to return to the city because there were no jobs back home. All political parties played cleverly with them assuring that they will get jobs in their home state but sadly that didn't happen. Kapri neither exaggerates the situation to take advantage of the labourers' misery, nor does he shy away from exposing the government's mismanagement. While the rich remained cushioned in comfort, the poor suffered from the repercussions of what is essentially a rich man's disease. And despite it all, they continue to hustle and the government still has “no data” to show for their struggles. There is a scene where the mother of one of the laborers was saying, "We are untouchables...They do not let us stand in front of their gate". This surprised us that we have Article 15 which abolishes untouchability and still it is prevalent to this day. Babasaheb Ambedkar fought hard to remove untouchability but sadly the labourers still had to bear the tag of being untouchable.
The O Re Bidesiya song, rendered by Rekha Bhardwaj, has been used reasonably well in 1232 KMS and does a good job of upping its recall value without compromising on authenticity. The Marenge To Wahin song also hits the right notes with Sukhwinder Singh’s vocals leaving an impact.
There are a few drawbacks of the documentary though. It comes as slightly dramatic and over-the-top. The crew who documented this rarely participated in the proceedings.
1232 KMS is a well-made documentary but certainly not an easy one to watch. It forces you to not just acknowledge your privilege, but also remember that India witnessed the largest exodus last year since partition. It will take you back to the lockdown era of 2020. Even the documentary was released on 24 March, the day lockdown was imposed in 2020.
By Souvik Biswas
Souvik is a first year student from Hindu College, pursuing History Hons. He is also a writer and coordinator of The Statesman Paper, Kolkata edition since the year 2016 to the present day. Being marked as a bibliophile and cinephile, Souvik states that he hates billionaires and dreams of a casteless and classless society.