A movie about the sexual abuse of under-age girls at a shelter home might reasonably be expected to include the first revelation of the crimes. How did Tata Institute of Social Sciences staffers, while carrying out a social audit of shelters in Bihar, stumble upon the violence being committed at the Sewa Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti in Muzaffarpur?
The clamour that ensued from the 2018 audit eventually led to the conviction of the shelter’s boss, Brajesh Thakur, in 2020. Pulkit’s Bhakshak puts its own spin on the events. The Hindi-language movie, which is out on Netflix, chooses as its principal character a cliche beloved to conscience-pricking dramas: the truth-seeking journalist.
Vaishali (Pednekar) runs an independent television channel whose only other employee is loyal cameraman Bhaskar (Sanjay Mishra). They realise that their reportage on serial abuse at a shelter home is ruffling feathers nesting in tall trees when the threats start coming in. The depraved shelter home chief Bansi Babu (Aditya Srivastava) has connections all the way to the top.
The story and screenplay, by Pulkit and Jyotsana Nath, sidestep a few aspects infinitely more interesting than watching Vaishali go down a well-trodden path. There is the audit itself, attributed to the “Nobel Institute of Social Sciences” – a backhanded compliment, perhaps? Bansi’s posse of enablers includes women, who are barely fleshed out.
The 134-minute movie is more worried about Vaishali’s heroics, which earn the disapproval of her husband (Surya Sharma). It’s hard to believe that Vaishali is the only reporter chasing the story, or that neither she nor senior police officer Gurmeet (Sai Tamhankar) has tried to independently check up on the social audit.
When a movie declares that the only way to expose Bansi is to “go viral”, it’s clear the battle has been lost. Bhakshak squanders a perfectly good opportunity to explore the vulnerability of girls at shelters. Scenes of distraught teenagers and leering men who say ugly things are as unnecessary as the unwavering focus on Vaishali’s ennoblement.
Some sequences are well-written and staged. The genial Aditya Srivastava makes for a terrifying villain, especially when he intimidates Vaishali and Bhaskar with a big smile. Bansi’s interactions with his collaborators, during which they use creepy euphemisms to refer to rape and torture, indicates the manner in which they dehumanise their victims.
Sanjay Mishra is far more convincing as a small-town reporter than Bhumi Pednekar’s impossibly virtuous Vaishali. Her speech about the need for empathy falls resolutely flat, since the events on which Bhakshak is based shows that people did care, even if they reacted late.