The Plague Files

What India’s fitful archive of pandemic cinema tells us

Stills from Zwigato, Dhuin, Bheed and 1232 KMS
25 July, 2023

A group of exhausted migrants, in the misplaced assumption that all rail services are suspended, decide to rest on a railway track, quickly falling asleep, and are run over by a passing train. It is the powerful opening sequence of Anubhav Sinha’s Bheed, drawing from a horrific real-life incident in the aftermath of the abrupt COVID-19 lockdown declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the onset of the pandemic.

On 24 March 2020, roughly two weeks after the World Health Organization had certified the novel coronavirus as a pandemic, Modi appeared on national television at 8 pm and announced a countrywide lockdown with four hours’ notice. While the move was hailed by the largely upper-caste middle classes, who came out on their balconies to bang pots and pans at the urging of the prime minister in an act of empty theatre, Modi’s announcement, in one stroke, devastated daily wagers and the fragile underclass powering our cities.

Suddenly without means to survive in the city, and with trains and public transport shut, a migration of biblical proportions began. The workers set off for their homes, often hundreds or thousands of kilometres away, by whatever means that could be obtained at a moment’s notice and, not infrequently, by foot.

The colossal scale of the pandemic, its historic import and collective trauma, made it almost inevitable that the experience would find its way to the cinematic screen, a subject that is likely to be repeatedly revisited for several decades to come.

Vaibhav Vats is an independent writer and journalist. His work has appeared in the New York Times and Al Jazeera, among other publications. He is working on a book on Hindu nationalism and the making of India’s Second Republic.