Bhakshak review: all posturing, no heft

Inspired by a true story, the Bhumi Pednekar-led Netflix film has little interest in the vitality of local journalism and frequently resorts to grandstanding dialogues.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic with over eight years of experience

Bhumi Pednekar in Bhakshak (2024)
Bhumi Pednekar as Vaishali Singh in Bhakshak // Photo: Netflix

In theory, Bhakshak—the new Netflix movie starring Bhumi Pednekar—knows what a story about a journalist fighting the world needs. You’ve got an uncaring and shackled system, a government keeping mum to save its brethren and getting everyone else to toe the line. There are people trying to intimidate you, either through surveillance, familial pressure, or hurting the ones closest to you. Add to that the obstacles faced by Indian women in the workforce, what with society wanting you always to put the kitchen and kids first. But none of this is done in a convincing fashion—it’s neither thrilling nor grounded. Spotlight, this is not. Instead, it’s much too interested in posturing because it is wrapped up in its own self-importance.

Bhakshak is packed with virtue-signalling dialogues

That’s especially unfortunate given there’s extensive reporting out there for a Spotlight-like tale that follows the evidence, the witness statements, and the police investigation. Bhakshak is inspired by real-life events—the sexual abuse of nearly three dozen girls, aged between 7 and 17, at a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, by the very people who ran it. But instead of developing its characters, the Netflix movie is too busy dropping lines. Unable (or unwilling) to craft scenes that could get their point across, writer-director Pulkit—his last credit was six years ago, for directing all episodes of the speculative fiction series Bose: Dead/Alive—and his co-writer Jyotsana Nath give into grandstanding, over and over.

“I’m a reporter. If I see something that’s not right, it’s my duty to report it.” “Look at how those girls are being treated; if you don’t care about what’s happening to others, one day it’ll happen to you.” Bhakshak is packed with pithy virtue-signalling dialogues, with the film’s lead character—played by Pednekar—launching into them of her volition or being set up by other characters to deliver them.

And hence, despite showcasing a litany of horrors and a vast web of unaccountability, the Netflix movie is entirely ineffective. It’s more interested in being a siren call to wake up its audience like the Shah Rukh Khan-led Jawan. (Khan is an uncredited producer on Bhakshak, which is a production of his Red Chillies.) That explains why the film is called Bhakshak—it’s Hindi for predator. That’s the focus, not the journalist and her journalism.

The plot and characters of Bhakshak

Set entirely in contemporary Bihar—mostly across the capital of Patna and Munawwarpur, a semi-fictional rendering of Muzaffarpur—the Netflix movie is centred on local reporter and news channel owner Vaishali Singh (Pednekar). At home, there’s pressure on her to have a baby, given she’s been married for six years in a country that treats women as child factories. “What is life without children?” a fellow mother says. At work, while she’s seemingly content with peddling frivolous news (like two dogs getting married), Vaishali insists she’s looking for big scoops. So, when a social study report—citing the torrid state of Bihar’s shelter homes—lands in her lap, her ears perk up. (Weirdly, in the early running, Bhakshak doesn’t do a good job of conveying that she’s particularly driven.)

That brings her into the orbit of Bansi Sahu (Aditya Srivastava)—based on the prime accused Brajesh Thakur—who heads an NGO that runs a girls’ welfare home and a bunch of newspapers as scams to pick up government funds. With her cameraman and colleague Bhaskar Sinha (Sanjay Mishra), Vaishali begins to probe Bansi’s network, which extends to the local child welfare committee and elected representatives of the state government. Simultaneously, she tries to track down survivors, girls who may have been lucky enough to escape from Bansi’s den in Munawwarpur. (While this is a structurally sound approach, the film suffers from a stop-start energy, unable to build on what comes before.)

Aditya Srivastava in Bhakshak (2024)
Aditya Srivastava as Bansi Sahu in Bhakshak // Photo: Bhavyanshu Singh/Netflix

The Netflix movie makes room for Vaishali’s husband, Arvind Singh (Surya Sharma), who claims to be supportive but also won’t lift a finger at home and SSP Jasmeet Gaur (Sai Tamhankar), a cop who is introduced more than 80 minutes into the film. And there are bit-part roles for Vaishali’s in-laws and Bansi’s politically-influential circle. But aside from Jasmeet—who becomes Bhakshak’s fourth most important character—the film sidelines the rest. None of them are developed beyond two traits, and Vaishali’s relatives don’t have much of a role to play in the second half. Vaishali is better handled, but I would argue that’s only in a comparative sense.

Failed by the system

Despite having plenty of beats to hit, Bhakshak feels severely padded—even resorting to artificial obstacles—and has a near-constant problem in terms of pacing. The writing has little understanding of how to build momentum and ends up taking absurd turns along the way. It doesn’t help that the film has no clue in how to significantly sustain its subplots (Vaishali’s home troubles are essentially wrapped up 34 minutes in) and throws random terms about (“fake news” and “become viral”) which showcase that the filmmakers have an elementary school-level comprehension about what they really mean in today’s India.

To make matters worse, Vaishali saves the day with ethically dubious journalistic practices—and it’s tied into the Netflix movie’s most frequent misstep: grandstanding. And when it runs out of dialogues and melodrama, Bhakshak amps it up by transitioning into a rousing, sentimental song. All of that is a shame because the film doesn’t need any of that. This is an inherently powerful story—one that reflects on the state of the country—about children who had no one failed by the very system designed to shelter and protect them.

Sanjay Mishra and Bhumi Pednekar in Bhakshak (2024)
Sanjay Mishra as Bhaskar Sinha and Bhumi Pednekar as Vaishali Singh in Bhakshak // Photo: Bhavyanshu Singh/Netflix

It’s also a story of Bollywood’s failure and what the audience rewards. Bhakshak was made for the big screen—there’s a clear moment close to the halfway mark where it fades to black as a song plays in the background. So, why has the footage been in the can for so long, given filming completed in February 2022? This very much feels like a case of a studio offloading a title to streaming, having come to grips with the lack of its theatrical (and financial) prospects. But then, any sane Bollywood observer could have told Red Chillies that two years ago. Sure, it’s rudderless and ineffective, but that’s not why it’s debuting on Netflix.

Bhakshak released on Friday, February 9 on Netflix worldwide.

Akhil Arora