The second installment of Amazon Prime’s pandemic-inspired anthology is definitely a leap from those that we have seen in the recent past
Filmmakers love to document important milestones in the history of mankind but usually, they do it after sufficient time has elapsed so that the experience becomes subjective.
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However, in the case of the pandemic, the entertainment industry, particularly the OTT platforms, seems to be in a rush to capture the emotional impact of the catastrophe on the people affected by it. Perhaps, the fact that the industry is itself confined by the pandemic has pushed it to create lockdown tales, and perhaps, like many others, it has seen aapda main avsar (opportunity in adversity).
The challenge is that the pandemic is so encompassing that the filmmaker cannot easily sell the story as somebody else’s lived reality. We all have seen the pandemic unravel so closely and so recently that there is very little space for fiction and drama to seep into the emotional cracks that the virus has created on the soul.
Having said that, the second installment of Unpaused is definitely a leap from the anthologies that we have seen in the recent past. The audiences have become so attuned to the long-form in the last year that the shorter format has begun to feel like a shortcut.
No such issue with Ayappa KM’s War Room, easily the most compelling of the five short films on offer. With virus as the backdrop, it gradually foregrounds the pathogenic prejudices that we carry without realising, and leaves you with a lot to mull over.
The ever-reliable Geetanjali Kulkarni plays a school teacher Sangeeta serving in a COVID-19 call centre in Mumbai, buzzing with phone calls of relatives seeking beds for their near and dear ones. One such phone call opens an untreated lesion inside the efficient Sangeeta, putting her into a moral dilemma. By the quirk of fate, she finds herself in a position to play almighty to the person whom she thinks has wronged her in the past.
Gitanjali’s expression is not muffled by the mask and Ayappa gets the setting and ambiance right. In a short time, he touches upon several issues, without being didactic or leaving a hold on logic. Be it the shortage of resources, comment on social hierarchy, or one of the operator’s firm belief in planetary positions, the short smoothly moves between the prosaic and the profound.
Nagraj Manjule’s Vaikunth is almost equally impressive as the actor-director captures the sights and sounds of a crematorium with sensitivity.
Set during the second wave, when the grief tumbled out of these closed spaces and the nation went into collective mourning, Nagraj plays a crematorium worker Vikas who lights up the pyres with clinical efficiency. As the infection spreads, it threatens to disturb the rhythm of Vikas. He has to bring his child to his workplace because neighbours are scared. His father is positive and is hospitalised, but Vikas carries on.
When the relatives started maintaining distance from the dead and when even the ashes were sanitised, suddenly Dalit workers like Vikas came out of the shadows to help the bodies cross over. Nagraj subtly draws attention to Vikas’ caste, to the graffiti that says ‘both rich and poor rest on the same bed at the crematorium.’
In a strange way, it reminds of the sudden sense of power that Sangeeta feels for a moment in the War Room and how the virus has robbed society of some of its disparity. It is a common theme in all the five shorts that finds its way into the stories in different ways.
We do get the social milieu, but the makers seem to have forgotten the second wave happened at a time when the weather was warm across the country. The sweat is both literally and metaphorically missing in the short that ends with the much-needed air of hope, and leaves a lump in the throat for many could not get that happy ending.
Ruchir Arun’s Teen Tigada begins with an intriguing premise on how crime and criminals reacted to the lockdown. Three criminals are stuck in an abandoned factory and could not move out their truck-load of goods because of the rampaging virus. As they spar and bond, Saqib Salim, Ashish Verma, and Sam Mohan combine to deliver some moments of absurdist humour and insight into human behaviour. But after a point, the pace becomes tardy and denouement predictable.
Similarly, Nupur Asthana’s opening short promises a heartfelt comment on those who lost their jobs during the pandemic without their fault and how it impacted their personal lives. However, after a bright start, it eventually becomes a quick rant on the subject.
When Akriti (Shreya Dhanwanthary) is summarily laid off over a video call, it tests her marriage with Dippy (Priyanshu Painyuli). He feels he is doing his bit, but Akriti finds his response inadequate. Both squabble but eventually find a single dose vaccine of trust.
In an effort to make it crisp, the screenplay develops cracks. When Akriti tells her maid about her sudden loss, she doesn’t even take a second to process the information and begins to sob. When Akriti’s neckline plunges, we could guess what is going to happen in the next scene. As expected, Shreya is effortless as the hard nut professional who is methodical in the household job as well. Priyanshu is not bad either but still, The Couple feels a little pretentious.
The tale of a courier boy, Shikha Makan’s Gond Ka Ladoo has been mounted like an old-school melodrama that feels syrupy and sticky, but towards the end manages to get the sweetness right. Though well-meaning, while watching The Couple and Gond Ka Laddoo, one starts getting a feeling that the makers have shortlisted a cross-section of people who were most affected by the pandemic and decided to carve stories around them. When screenplays become checklists, some of the fun is diluted and you could sense the manipulation.
It is like that missing nutmeg in Gond Ka Laddoo; the absence irks, but it is hard to pinpoint.
Unpaused: Naya Safar is currently streaming on Amazon Prime