Ananda (Tannishtha Chatterjee) says it all towards the end of Wendy Bednarz’s feature debut Yellow Bus: “There were so many chances to save her life.” That’s the message at the center of its tragedy. Not justice, but acknowledgement. Because while it’s easy to blame anyone whose presence touched a senseless and avoidable death, few (if any) are actual murderers. Grief has a tendency of blinding us from this fact, though. Even when the person we blame most is ourselves.
Ananda, conversely, wants justice. She saw the way the school bus door jammed after Ravina (Aarushi Laud) and Anju (Kshethra Mithun) boarded and how it didn’t when she’s supposedly shown the same bus again after the latter girl was left inside to die of hyperthermia. She sees the obvious guilt in the academy principal’s (Kinda Alloush’s Mira) eyes when attempting to give Ananda and her husband (Amit Sial’s Gagan) “blood money” as a means of accepting responsibility. And the pained looks Gagan gives when she refuses to take it because he’d rather have the restitution and let Anju’s untimely death improve their future.
The result becomes two films in one. There’s the investigative aspect wherein Ananda’s desperation to not let her daughter’s death be forgotten forces those on the periphery to lead her onto pathways towards those who know what really happened and the emotional reckoning being suffered by all involved––parents, sister, and Mira alike. One bleeds into the other throughout, but it’s that second character-driven half that really hits home as we already know negligence is the real culprit. What we want to see is how these characters react when their own complicity to that negligence becomes too much to bear.
It takes its toll everywhere. Maybe Mira’s employees kept her in the dark to some details and she would have done things differently if not (or maybe she wouldn’t considering she hasn’t yet set the record straight). Maybe Ravina is right to think she could have saved her sister by not leaving the bus without her––even so, she’s a child who shouldn’t need to be saddled with that responsibility. And what about Ananda and Gagan? She demanded Anju start school as early as possible and the only reason they left India to live in this unnamed Arabian Gulf nation is his job. How far into the past do you go to pass blame?
Add the aspect that this place is a melting pot of nationalities and languages (Hindi, Arabic, English, and more are spoken) and you really get to see how different everyone is despite each agreeing on one thing: Anju should not have died. The inclusion of that “blood money” is interesting in this vein because of how it’s construed on both sides. As a Muslim, Mira is simply doing what she’s supposed to do. As a Hindu, Ananda can’t help but dismiss it as a “bribe.” And Gagan is caught in-between as a capitalist who sees its benefit despite its origins. These culture clashes exist throughout to inject an otherwise by-the-numbers tragedy with solid intrigue.
The real standout is the acting. Chatterjee and Alloush are both fantastic, Sial’s frustration and fatigue lending a necessary counter to their volatility. What makes them so good is that they aren’t painted as good versus evil. Mira is genuinely contrite even if her socio-economic standing makes it difficult to act with compassion rather than simply say the words. And Ananda is justifiably enraged. She’s at an 11 from the moment she finds out Anju has died because she truly thinks the world has gone insane. Why is she the only one connecting dots? Why does everyone want to just move on?
It may all build through some melodramatic moments and hyperbolic confrontations, but Bednarz does a nice job grounding everything in reality: we do sometimes need a proverbial slap across the face to wake up and see the damage our actions have wrought. Where does Mira trying to keep her school’s doors open start endangering the lives of those she’s meant to protect within them? When does Ananda’s crusade for justice start to push her husband away and drive her surviving daughter into an existential spiral?
In the end, there are no winners. These tragedies rarely have them. Simply recognizing that everyone went wrong somewhere along the line, however, might yet keep the next potential martyr alive––if those in power still possess enough humanity to recognize it too.
Yellow Bus premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.