As if in the most scathing way possible, Vinod Kapri’s documentary on a group of migrants who were forced to return home in light of the nationwide total lockdown, ‘1232 KMs’ begins with the booming voiceover of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, making the announcement back in March 2020. While no nation or leader could have fathomed the economic devastation that the pandemic brought (and continues to reel through even months after the lockdown has been lifted and the vaccination drive has begun), it is evident that our government wasn’t prepared for a public health emergency of this scale. It’s been a year, and now we can see regular folk taking to social media to share their vaccination updates (as people continue to wear masks and crowd around malls, markets, cafes and restaurants and other areas of communal gathering). But Kapri’s documentary is an important reminder of some of the perils that we can never imagine, and many Indians had to endure and continue to, to this day.
‘1232 KMs’ is almost entirely based on the class divide that rules urban India, and thus the title is extremely fitting. When the government imposed the lockdown at less than a day’s notice, it was only the migrant workers and daily-wage labourers who were rendered unable to pay for their next meal, let alone manage their monthly expenditure. The film follows seven of the thousands of men, women and children who were abandoned by their employers, and refused government support, who hitched rides, stuffed themselves into buses, or even watched thousands of kilometres to their home villages and towns. Over the course of the next hour and a half, we get to see how people were at a dearth of basic nourishment, water, and other utilities and resources, even as they queued up in anticipation for several days, or were poorly treated by officials as if reflecting back on the worst of mismanagement. At some points, some good samaritans (read: the filmmaker’s crew) help these workers out by providing them with supplies, but most other times they don’t even have flour for rotis. Due to the dangerous nature of communal travel, that too without protection, most migrants were vilified. But did they have a choice?
‘1232 KMs’ is about seven migrants who move from Ghaziabad to their villages in Bihar after losing their jobs in construction. In their journey, we see their resilience and gumption through the many obstacles that have been inadvertently thrown their way, through instances of support and apathy. Throughout the film, the soundtrack worded by Gulzar is a reminder of what ‘home’ is and how in times of extreme adversity, it is the only place that one can lean on, even if it is to just die happy. The film is a constant reminder, however, that the only reason these migrants were displaced in the first place was for their livelihood, and the economy hasn’t been able to render them the right support, least of all when they needed it most.
With the compositions of Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar (performed by Rekha Bhardwaj and Sukhwinder Singh), the film comes across as slightly dramatic and over-the-top, with the crescendo haranguing the audience to evoke sympathy. The film’s crew very rarely participates in the proceedings, but one can’t help but think if the presence of the camera possibly changes the behaviour of those not directly in the story, if not those who are.
Do I recommend it?
Still, the film deserves one watch, even if it is to get off our privileged positions and see the damage and devastation of the pandemic beyond people’s lives because it is one that will linger on for the unforeseeable future.