Directors: Raj & DK, Nikkhil Advani, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Avinash Arun, Nitya Mehra
Cast: Gulshan Devaiah, Saiyami Kher, Richa Chadha, Sumeet Vyas, Ishwak Singh, Rinku Rajguru, Lilette Dubey, Abhishek Banerjee, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shardul Bharadwaj
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Though Covid-19 surfaced more than a year ago, the true magnitude of a global pandemic only dawned upon the world in early March. Over the next nine months, most of us geared through the five stages of grief. Most artists, however, have chosen to weaponize this surreal experience. It’s been fascinating to see quarantine art reflect each of these five stages by being rooted to the specificity of their time. A deluge of genre stories – social comedies and digital thrillers defined by the language of lockdown filmmaking – led the initial stages from denial to depression. Zoom calls and computers became the primary narrative devices. The new normal had an eerie sense of permanence to it: stories were told in the moment for the moment. But with Unpaused, an anthology of five short films, we seem to have entered the last stage: acceptance.
Equipped with the luxury of hindsight, and freed from the logistics of isolation, artists are now in a position to reflect on the sociocultural aftershocks of the quake. They are finally distant enough to make sense of it. The camera need not be a gimmick anymore. The novelty of characters speaking to screens has passed. As a result, even though the films of Unpaused are centered on people struggling to come to terms with the new normal, the filmmaking itself is no more limited by those terms. Consequently, Unpaused hinges on the theme of new beginnings. Hope is the heart of acceptance, and it’s nice to see stories being told about a moment.
But the cinema of hope is different from hope itself – it’s a shackled beast. The resolutions morph into one another. Like disaster movies that thrive on the union of disparate souls, four of Unpaused’s five shorts revolve around the birth of unlikely bonds. In Nitya Mehra’s Chaand Mubarak, a paranoid spinster (Ratna Pathak Shah) warms up to a Muslim rickshaw driver (Shardul Bharadwaj) in the thick of lockdown. It’s sweet but all too predictable: the slow dropping of guard, the cultural exchanges, the curious chats, the opposite ends of the economic spectrum, the sappy moral core. In Tannishtha Chaterjee’s Rat-A-Tat, arguably the weakest of the lot, a crabby “senior citizen” (Lilette Dubey) warms up to her sloppy young neighbour (Sairat’s Rinku Rajguru) when a rat invades her house. The quasi-French background score is the least of its worries. Their chemistry is stilted, the writing lacks fluidity, the moments between the two drift along in a bid to look unrehearsed, and the director fails to use Rinku Rajguru’s distinctly expressive face.
In Nikkhil Advani’s Apartment, a depressed woman (Richa Chadha) on the verge of suicide is repeatedly interrupted by an annoying new neighbour (Ishwak Singh). The premise – which fuses the urgency of the MeToo movement (her husband is a famous journalist accused of sexual abuse) with the emotional vacuum of a pandemic – is intriguing. But the form suffers from an awkward mainstream hangover. Ishwak Singh’s chirpy character is infected with the guardian-angel disease, not dissimilar to Shah Rukh Khan’s Kal Ho Naa Ho persona. Even his styling is identical to Aman’s, and a speech in a lobby becomes one of the corniest things written all year.
Raj & DK’s Glitch breaks the clutter at a conceptual level – it is set in the near-future when the planet is ravaged by “Covid-30” and VR (virtual reality) is the medium of human connections. The world-building is typically quirky, but at the core lies a love story between two misfits: a “hypo” (Gulshan Devaiah) who believes in EFH (everything from home), and a “warrior” (Saiyami Kher) who is sidelined by society for being a scientist. They meet and grow close in unusual circumstances, and their story is driven by little eccentricities (what can be more romantic than a hypochondriac exposing both body and soul to another human?). But a short like Glitch loses half the battle because it exists in a post-Cargo universe. It’s all very charming for a few minutes, but then what?
Which brings me to the best of the five, and perhaps the most definitive Indian lockdown film yet: Avinash Arun’s Vishaanu. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is the only title that reverses the hope template. It resists an ending because its protagonists, unlike others, can’t afford the privilege of resolution. A young migrant family stranded in Mumbai – husband (Abhishek Banerjee), wife (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and son – secretly seeks shelter in a lavish sample apartment in a building where they were once construction workers. They want to return to their village in Rajasthan, but with no means to do so, they gradually dare to inhale the air of the deserted township. She discovers the promise of a bathtub, he grins at a couple sucking face in a dark car. In a way, this film too is about an unlikely bond – but it’s between humans and the upper-class notion of humanity.
Vishaanu is a wry Parasite-style satire, especially in how it reveals the perfunctory liberalism of a city that was too busy mourning the despair of the Other India to actually understand its people. At one point, the woman is handed food packets by BMC officials from a van, who then go on to conduct a cellphone interview with her as if she were an exotic animal spotted in an urban jungle. Most importantly, the film refuses to fetishize the strife of the family. We see the husband and wife sneaking away into the bedroom at the dead of night to…dance for their own TikTok videos. Yet, they sleep and eat on the floor, cook on a mobile stove and keep the house clean – almost as a way to maintain the void between dreams of concrete and straws of reality. And to remain grounded despite being suspended high in the sky.
This irony is what defines the short: the lockdown makes them feel even more homeless by forcing upon them a home that can never be theirs. Pausing the past rarely implies the unpausing of their future. After all, you don’t need an anthology of happily ever afters to locate the tragedy of hope.