It is a year to the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide total lockdown in an attempt to rein in the coronavirus. The lockdown was lifted months ago, but the Covid-19 pandemic has shown no signs of abating. Perhaps the only silver lining in reports of a renewed surge in infections is that a vaccination drive against the virus is now underway.

Indeed, photographs of Indians giving thumbs-up signs after receiving their innoculations jostle with images of crowded marketplaces that encourage the spread of the disease and people with ear-buds stuck up their nostrils being tested for the virus. Vinod Kapri’s 1232 KMs reminds us to never forget another set of images – those of desperate and hungry migrant Indians walking or cycling vast distances to reach their homes.

The documentary takes us back to some of the wrenching scenes that resulted from the government’s decision to impose a harsh lockdown at four hours’ notice. As the lockdown kept being extended and it became clear that migrant workers in cities were not going to be able to hold out any longer without wages or the ability to pay for food, they went into “atmanirbhar” mode. Abandoned by their employers, local administrations and the Union government, thousands of men, women and children displayed desperate self-reliance by walking, cycling or hitching rides to villages and towns hundreds of kilometres away. Kapri’s documentary, which is being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar, captures some of the horrors of this phase of pandemic mismanagement.

Kapri was a television journalist before he became a filmmaker. His credits include the sanitation-themed documentary Can’t Take This Shit Anymore and the feature film Pihu. Kapri’s television experience shows in the here-and-now flavour of 1232 KMs, while his filmmaking ambition is evident in the use of background music and songs. Composed by Vishal Bhardwaj, written by Gulzar, and sung by Rekha Bhardwaj and Sukhwinder Singh, the tunes are intended to add a layer of poignancy to a tragic event.

Instead, the songs are intrusive, mawkish and actually quite unnecessary – a Bollywood touch to a film whose power lies in its verite approach.

1232 KMs (2021). Courtesy Bhagirathi Films/ Disney+ Hotstar.

In the documentary, Kapri and a small crew accompany three batches of migrants who flee Ghaziabad for their villages in Bihar. After losing their jobs in the construction sector, the men set out on their bicycles – some second-hand and at least one meant for women. The film is dedicated to “the million faceless workers who build our nation”. Kapri gives these workers faces and voices. They look and sound exhausted but pedal away, determined to deal with a situation not of their making. Instead of waiting here and dying, it’s better to get a move on, one of the men says.

As he follows the cyclists for a week in a car, Kapri provides an eye-witness account of the journey. It involves camaraderie, grim humour, fear, resoluteness, many obstacles and instances of apathy but also kindness. A dhaba owner opens his eatery for the migrants and allows them to spend the night there. It’s the least I can do, he says. Another man serves the travellers samosas, while various cycle repair shops raise their shutters only to help the men.

Visuals of the modest towns in Uttar Pradesh that the cyclists cross to get to Bihar tell their own story of neglect. Some of the migrants are better educated than the others, but their backstories are distressingly familiar: home is where the family is, but the city is where the money is.

Filmmaker Vinod Kapri. Courtesy Bhagirathi Films/ Disney+ Hotstar.

The 86-minute narrative has been expertly stitched together by 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. In a montage of absurdity, various government flunkies throw up their hands as the quarantined migrants demand to be fed – they haven’t eaten since the previous day.

The men threaten to revolt. The official who runs the centre finally materialises. Lunch is served several hours after lunchtime. Some of the migrants, meanwhile, have lost their appetite.

Here too, it is clear that government aid actually hindered rather than helped, and that the migrants are better off on their own.

Did Kapri’s presence lead to any interventions, such as better treatment from the police officials who might have held back from beating up the travellers, as was reported, because of the presence of a film crew? Except for a couple of instances, Kapri appears to have restricted himself to the role of an empathetic fellow traveller. This distanced approach increases the film’s credibility and its claim to being an observational work. As Kapri and cinematographers Manav Yadav and Rohit Vishwakarma capture the plight and courage of the men on their perilous trek, the humanitarian crisis created by the lockdown of 2020 returns into view.

1232 KMs (2021).