“How will 2020 be remembered,” is a question that has troubled me for some time now. Will we, the privileged, conveniently navel gaze about the behavioural questions a year of firsts posed? Will we look back at it as an assortment of intimate moments, achieved through unanticipated hiccups? Or will we for once forego the banality of inconvenience and contemplate a tragedy greater than the sum of not just one but several pandemics. Vinod Kapri’s documentary 1232 KMS, now playing on Hotstar, is the film event of the year. Let no one convince you otherwise. It chases reality and candidly unveils the many fictions we tell ourselves about this country in order to sell grandeur. We are no more human than the last person we forgot to remember. To which effect 1232 KMS isn’t a pandemic film, but an indictment of the romance that is India. It sets out to memorise our most recent tragedy, the epic proportions of which somehow feel timeless.
The documentary has a straightforward premise. Kapri follows Ritesh Kumar Pandit, Ashish Kumar, Ram Babu Pandit, Mukesh Kumar, Krishna, Sonu Kumar, and Sandeep Kumar (remember the names), all of them daily wagers as they undertake a brutal journey from Ghaziabad to Bihar, on cycles, in the middle of last year’s nationwide lockdown. The director, bereft of a full-fledged crew, is as much a journeyman as he is witness. Therein lies the cue to both Kapri’s dilemma and ethical hindsight. In the middle of a catastrophe of intimately felt pain, how can the artist retain his objectivity. Insofar as the director tries, he breaks that barrier to lend a helping hand. Put yourself in his shoes and you wonder if at some point the inhumanity of what his eyes witnessed overwhelmed the fragility of what the camera hoped to capture. The despair, the near futility of man living only to jinx death, must have taken its toll on both sides of the lens.
Kapri follows the group as they meander through villages in a country observing funereal stillness. “Mar jayenge woh toh theek hai par police waale ke haath nahi jayenge,” one of the men says about avoiding the highways. Social diversity is something we like to define this country by. In 1232 KMS it manifests as a function of kindness and empathy. There are policemen who couldn’t care less, those who go out on a limb to help and those who embody a cruel haplessness. There are people who help out and there are those who look the other way. Kapri, crucially, finds balance between both, choosing neither to paint a picture of collective redemption nor collective shame. It’s incredible really that the lives of these men are allowed the dignity of context, only because they fight to stay alive, against the mightiest of odds; their journey no less epic than our mythologies. Kapri’s film also bares facts that numerical statistics barely clip the heels of. Almost all men in the film are forced to borrow money to buy the cycles they then pin their lives on. “Beta bol raha tha chocolate le aiyo, ek chotti cycle… par mere paas toh kuch nahi hai dene ko,” Rambabu tells Kapri.
Importantly 1232 KMS is an honest memory of last year's nationwide lockdwon, unsaturated by enthusiasm or fiction.
Even in a documentary that focuses on a group dynamic, someone is set apart merely by the way he appears broken. In Kapri’s film, it is the soft-spoken BA graduate Ashish, who remembers his mother with the fondness of a poet painfully exiled from her grasp. “Maa hi chup chup ke padhne ke liye paisa deti thi,” Ashish tells Kapri, with the grace of a man who despite everything, wouldn’t yield to rage. Indians, the film confirms, make compromises before they make plans, accept the past before they can confront the present. Life happens between a rock and a hard place, between longing and letting go. In one scene, Ritesh is told by his hapless mother back home that she can’t take water from the village handpump. It’s hell everywhere, and the only humanity we can clutch at is the man’s longing for a home, for a loved one’s embrace to die in. You’d be tempted to see this journey as one of grit and redemption; it’s anything but the reflection of the deep fracture that preceded not just this, but many journeys.
1232 KMS for all its risks and technical flaws is an affecting memory of the year we are all keen to forget. More importantly, it’s an honest memory, unsaturated by enthusiasm or fiction. Even the tiredness of their eyes, in the painful clarity of their purpose, these men carry more than just the weight of their own bodies. They carry this country’s shame, the collective embarrassment that must claw at our hearts for what we have let become of those around us. There will be bigger and more glamorous releases this year, some of them billed as essential viewing for the sake of cinema itself. There won’t however be a more important film, simply because of the human tragedy it surveys and the story of redemption it undercuts with the poignancy of a man who has woken up to a landscape bled by a pandemic that started generations ago. Poverty or inequality, call it what you want.