In Anubhav Sinha’s Bheed, we meet “Covid warriors” before they earned the grand title. Bheed is set during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in India. In a rural corner of North India, a check post set up to prevent citizens from returning to their homes during the newly imposed lockdown becomes a minefield of competing interests.

As in Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004), where a collision of vehicles leads to the revelation of social and economic tensions, the check post in Bheed has symbolic value. Police officer Subhash Yadav (Ashutosh Rana) assigns the job to his subordinate Surya (Rajkummar Rao), for whom the posting becomes a way to address his anxiety over his social position as a Dalit.

Assisted by Ram Singh (Aditya Srivastava), Surya watches in alarm as hordes of travellers of all classes and faiths turn up at the barricade. Surya’s upper-caste girlfriend Renu (Bhumi Pednekar), as a medical officer, happens to be around to handle the load.

The Hindi-language film is based on a story by Sinha and a screenplay by him, Sonali Jain and Saumya Tiwari. The check post is set up at the future site of a township called Lotus Oasis, making the movie a brave (and rare) allegory about present-day India seen through a health crisis.

Bheed (2023).

This mini-India is riven by differences, with empathy for suffering replaced by a narrow focus on one’s own community. The title can be translated as “crowd” or more appropriately, “mob”.

In his recent films, including Mulk (about Islamophobia) and Article 15 (about caste-based violence), Sinha has explored the fault lines that run through Indian society. The problem with Bheed is that like the hastily set-up check post that threatens to fall apart, the film is a collection of well-meaning ideas that barely hang together.

If we are being charitable, we might commend Bheed for mirroring the chaos that follows the attempt to impose order on an unruly populace. Improvisation appears to be key to surviving as well as keeping a shambolic narrative on track – a point laboriously made by Kritika Kamra’s earnest television reporter.

Shot in black and white, the film aims for a ripped-off-the headlines quality. There is plenty of opportunity to present a visually stark, documentary-style rendering of a humanitarian crisis. There are moments when the monochrome palette works in the film’s favour, only to be undermined by fast cutting, ordinary visuals and stilted dialogue exchanges.

Bheed has the massive disadvantage of competing with amateur videos shot of the lockdown’s more-horrific moments – masses of migrants walking for days back to their hometowns, migrants being sprayed with pesticide to cleanse them of the virus, the police high-handedness, the girl who cycled 1,300 km home with her father. A host of web series and films have revisited this sorry chapter of recent history, including Madhur Bhandarkar’s India Lockdown. Vinod Kapri’s documentary 1232 Kms, which followed a group of migrants who cycled back to their villages, is a more focused and far more effective portrayal of how impoverished Indians were left to their own devices during the first lockdown from 2020.

Bheed equally suffers from its hesitancy to follow through on its convictions. Despite plenty of hand-wringing about the problems that plague India, from petty-mindedness to self-interest, the film blames character motivations on the pandemic, rather than on innate biases that peep out from behind masks.

The security guard Balram (Pankaj Kapur), who spews venom against the lower castes and Muslims, is excused as a victim of circumstance. The mother (Dia Mirza) commanding her chauffer to drive faster in order to reach her daughter – she is surely a descendant of the man who forced Balraj Sahni’s tonga driver to injury in Do Bigha Zamin – is handled with kid gloves despite being a paragon of urban entitlement.

The track that works the best, given the circumstances, is Surya’s efforts to assert control. Rajkummar Rao’s nuanced performance, which is ably complemented by Bhumi Pednekar, Ashutosh Rana and Aditya Srivastava, is the film’s highlight, even as it competes with an array of extras who play the weary travellers.

The range of creased faces and cracked heels – the ordinary Indians who suffered the most during the pandemic – linger in memory longer than the manufactured tensions between the principal characters. These faces lend much-needed grim poetry to a movie that is mostly prosaic in its imagery and is undecided about what it wants to say.