1232 kms review: Vinod Kapri's documentary on migrant labourers lays the truth bare
In a country, where most news channels with far-reaching impact have let this crisis unfold in the background without any coverage, 1232 Kms lies in an enviable position without a contemporary film tackling a similar theme.
When one sits down to watch Vinod Kapri's 1232 Kms, currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, there's a possibility that they might be watching two documentaries at once. The first is around India's largest humanitarian crisis since the partition, whose documentation alone automatically makes it qualify as a great piece of filmmaking. The other might be of Kapri's own interactions with the labourers he's following from Uttar Pradesh, all the way to their home-towns in Bihar. In documentaries like these, it's only inevitable how the storyteller mines the stories of his 'subjects', becomes an important part of the narrative. What does he ask them? How much deeper does the story cut into the larger scheme of things? Does he acknowledge his own struggles, trying to walk the tight rope of allowing them the privacy of a meltdown during what could be a fatal journey, without necessarily putting a curtain on the institutional failure? Some might call this nit-picking, but these fine details are what separate the 'good' documentaries, from the 'great' ones.
On March 24, 2020 at 8 pm, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the entire country would be in 'lockdown' (from midnight of March 25) to mitigate the spreading of the novel coronavirus , which had claimed 12 victims (in India) at the time. What the government didn't seem to take into account is the livelihoods of daily-wage and contract labourers, who would exhaust their savings in a few days/weeks, and would soon either be evicted from their place of accommodation, or would be left starving with no income for several weeks on an end. With no employment, no food, and no place to call home, millions of labourers reportedly set off (on foot, or on bicycle) to their hometowns. Here's what is novel about Kapri's documentary, that while many journalists risked the outdoors by accompanying the labourers for a few kilometres, asking them for their story, and handing them a food packet to ease their conscience, Kapri chose to stick around with the group of labourers till they reached their hometown in Saharsa, almost 8 days later.
In a time, where the central govt has denied any accountability on the matter by stating that there is 'no data', Kapri's documentation of the crisis becomes all the more 'important'. The film presents us with flesh-and-blood human beings, who might have been reduced to mere statistics in newspaper reports, if not for Kapri's film. In a world, where a video on the plight of a migrant labourer is competing for our attention in the same space also featuring baby videos or memes featuring our favourite celebrity, Kapri's endeavour to film this crisis, raises the project's profile even further. Intercepting the group at the forests in Moradabad (UP), Kapri slowly and steadily introduces Ritesh, Ashish, Ram Babu, Mukesh, Krishna, Sonu and Sandeep, most of whom worked as construction labourers in Ghaziabad. After managing to last through the first month of lockdown, when faced 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 govt authorities.
Kapri gathers outlines for most of these 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 B.A graduate, sentenced to the life of a daily-wager, because of trying circumstances back home including an alcoholic father. He shares an anecdote about how his mother would encourage him to study, despite the far-from-ideal situation at home. As Kapri follows them over the initial two-three days, they struggle with punctures, unhinged chains, which they solve by themselves, in case the shops in villages won't entertain them. At the mercy of large-hearted dhaba owners, they plead for a meal and a place to sleep. Thankfully for Ritesh and Co, serendipity awaits them at different parts of the journey. Witnessing a crisis like this, many Samaritans go out of their way to help pardesis like Ritesh with a meal of dal & rice, or a snack of samosa. A few truck drivers offered lifts to them, risking the foul temper of the cops, expediting their journey a few hundred kms per day.
If there's one thing Kapri's documentary more than successfully delves into, it's the working-class's distrust of the government machinery. At one point, when Kapri asks why they're taking the roads through the villages instead of the highways, the men recall how they were beaten up near Hapur. One of them goes on to say, "Mar jayenge woh toh theek hai, lekin police waale ke haath nahi aayenge.” They would rather die, than be 'rescued' by the law enforcement. All the men lose their cool after being locked up at a 'quarantine facility' on the Bihar border, that doesn't seem to have been cleaned recently. "What if we catch the virus over here?", someone asks. However, in a later part of the journey, Ritesh also tells the camera how his 'rage' has evaporated once he's near home. Some might infer this to be Ritesh's forgetfulness, but in a country where the stakes are so severely against the likes of Ritesh, one might even be forced to wonder about the privilege required to hold a grudge against the system.
1232 Kms will remain a stark snapshot of a crisis, many years after the government denying its very existence, moves on. However, one also needs to ask if capturing a crisis alone, translates into great filmmaking? A documentary like this also needs the director's own insights after witnessing a crisis of this magnitude. Kapri's film is content with only showcasing the apathy of the 'system', flashing a few title cards on the screen, and zooming in on the tears of the labourers in every other scene. Is it really making an effort to look beyond the obvious? At what point, does such a documentary cross a 'line', and become exploitative? That's something the audience will need to be the judge of, in the years to come. But in a country, where most news channels with far-reaching impact have let this crisis unfold in the background without any coverage, 1232 Kms lies in an enviable position without a contemporary film tackling a similar theme. For that alone, we might be tempted to let the 'importance' of Kapri's film to supersede its actual merit.
1234 Kms is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. Watch the trailer here —
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