There is a scene in Avinash Arun's Vishanu, when a young boy looks out at a green field with an outline of hills far into the distance from the balcony of a high-rise. For a brief moment, you think of Arun's first feature film Killa, which was set in a Konkan coastal town and captured its natural surroundings — and the effect it has on its young protagonist. And it's the only bit of 'nature' in a film almost entirely shot indoors, set and made in the lockdown, as part of the anthology film, Unpaused, on Amazon Prime: the boy, Monu (Pallas Prajapati), is soon dragged into the house by his father (Abhishek Banerjee), lest he is seen by someone; they have been living in their employer's empty apartment, unable to find anything else. Arun doesn't think so: nature is not just greenery, people is nature. "You are nature," he says, over the phone from his parents' house in Talegaon.
Earlier in the day, Arun had gone for a long drive alone in the nearby hills, followed by a short hike, and the day after he goes back to Mumbai, from where he works. Arun is both a cinematographer and a director, and he always shoots his own films, because the camera is "an extension of who he is"; he prefers to call it a "gaze". Perhaps that's what distinguishes his works, whether it is the way he films the foggy Punjab landscape in Paatal Lok (where he is one of the two directors), or the ghats of Benaras in Masaan (which he shot), with an eye for textures, subdued colours, or the softness with which he lights faces.
He also has an affinity for stories of non-urban, marginalised people, perhaps owing to his own lower-middle class background. He remembers as a production assistant going for a shoot to a nice big house and feeling a desire "to stay there". Similarly, even though the family in Vishanu end up in a fancy apartment out of desperation, they start enjoying the perks. One night, after they've put their son to sleep, Manish and his wife, Seema (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), sneak out of their beds, only to go to the other room and record a TikTok video of them dancing to an upbeat number.
This escapist element in the film puts it more in the realm of satire, rather than a straight look at the plight of the migrant labourers in the lockdown. On the one hand there are fleeting moments of the couple living out a fantasy, on the other the creeping feeling that it's not going to end well. To write the screenplay, Arun got in touch with Shubham, his batchmate from the Film and Television Institute of India; he had worked with the migrant labour camps in Delhi in the pandemic and had experienced it first hand. Shubham had written Eeb Allay Ooo!, another film that takes a lateral, satirical look at underclass struggle. "We know each other for years. I felt wonderful when I saw Eeb Allay Ooo! because it has that gaze, which is to express and not preach," he says. "It's not about sad people-happy people, rich people-poor people," he adds, but the story gave him a chance to deal with some big questions, like 'Every time there is a calamity, man made or otherwise, why is it that poor and the helpless have to suffer the most?'.
Arun has always found himself preoccupied by the lives of construction workers, and those who put hard physical labour in civic tasks, ever since his visits to Mumbai as a boy. He has been fiddling with an idea with a "dark" theme about one such couple, where the much younger wife has an affair with the thekedaar — and he would still like to make that film someday. When Amazon Prime approached him for the anthology, he converted the idea into this film. Vishanu may not be as dark as his original idea, but Arun himself doubts whether it's in keeping with the streaming studio's "mandate to make hopeful films.' "For me, hope is a cliched word. Life is suffering and misery and how you deal with it — that is where the stories are," he says.
The film really took off once Arun stepped inside the flat, a part of an abandoned high-profile housing project in Dombivalli, that had a sterile, ghost-town look. "It reminded me of Antonioni's Red Desert, which is set in an industrial town," he says. For Arun, a film always takes off only once he has found the right location. He "gets his inspiration from spaces" — irrespective of whether it's indoor or outdoor. He wants to make a feature film, titled Boomerang, and has been looking for a producer; it'll be his "ode to the Sahyadri's".