What can you hope to see in a roughly 45-minute film that opens with the note that it was “fully conceived and produced during the national lockdown enforced in India due to COVID 19”? In the case of Rahul Riji Nair’s Survival Stories, the answer is eight shorts, looking at the lockdown in eight different ways. In the first one, titled Hook or Crook, a woman (Vinitha Koshy, who featured in this director’s first film, Ottamuri Velicham) wakes up at night hearing a strange sound. She seems all alone at home. Or is she? What appears to be a haunted-house story — “You shouldn’t have come here… No one who has come here has left…” — ends with a twist that made me smile.
A theme slowly emerges. Every short features a character who is confined in a way. Some of them mention COVID. Others exist in a timeless space — they may be physically “locked down” in a location, but their stories could have unfolded even before the lockdown. These locations vary. Sometimes, it’s a room. Sometimes, it’s a terrace. Sometimes, it’s a marriage, which can result in its own kind of lockdowns, preventing either spouse from moving forward. One time, it’s a lift that’s stuck. What can be worse for a claustrophobic man? The woman with him asks him to breathe, to imagine open spaces — and he does. We get the rare “outdoor” shot. We see the roads, even if there’s no one else.
As always in anthologies, some parts work better than others. And one part made me really angry. It’s about a man who locks his house and leaves town without providing for his dog (played by Titti the Dog). The poor thing wanders around the house, looking for food, water. It’s borderline unwatchable if you love animals. But the bigger point is that this lockdown is not just about human beings. Recall all the stories you are reading about thirsty, starving street dogs forced to fend for themselves. In another short, we see a differently abled person struggling in such a situation. It’s called Toys From Heaven. It ends with a shot of a toy literally dangling from the skies.
The YouTube site that hosts Survival Stories makes it clear that every short was produced with the minimal resources available to the artists. That much is evident — this isn’t something you want to “review” for its cinematic rigour. But as variations on a theme (and also in various “genres”), this anthology is an interesting effort. In one short, a blind man reenacts the plight faced by the Mammootty character in Mathilukal. There’s just a female voice on the other side of a door: that keeps him going. Some of you know what that’s like, especially if you’re on your own and trapped in a city that isn’t your own. The voice on the other side isn’t just a voice. It’s the promise of another human being on a deserted island. It’s hope.