Almost overnight, an entire movie genre has been forced to renovate its identity. Not too long ago, 2024 might have been conceived as a futuristic sci-fi thriller. But the 60-minute film simply extends our experience of the current pandemic. It imagines a not-implausible scenario three years from today: Covid-19 has mutated into something deadlier (C-24) that kills in a matter of hours. The healthcare system is redundant; the hospitals don't even come into play. The premise revolves around four teenagers – Padma, Murali, Shobita and Danny – scrambling to escape a red-zoned Mumbai before it's too late. A sudden outbreak has turned the city into a post-apocalyptic ghost town, and Padma's kid brother is missing. Even though it sounds like a morbid Scooby Doo episode, 2024 transcends its young-adult machinations.
But there's something you should know – and I should remember – before we go ahead. Directed by Rohin Raveendran Nair, 2024 is a collaboration between filmmaker-producer Vikramaditya Motwane and OnePlus. Which means that its USP, for better or worse, is that it's shot entirely on a phone, therefore carrying the burden of being a product showcase and an independent feature at once. Unfortunately, this is also how the film is publicized. So it's hard not to wonder how much of 2024 is in fact engineered – written, choreographed, filmed, edited – to highlight the technology rather than vice versa. For instance, the plot is visually constructed to present Mumbai as a character in all kinds of light: night, day, indoors, outdoors, fire, rain, posh bungalows, classrooms, corridors, terraces, cars, sewers. No location or aesthetic is spared.
Some of the narrative kinks – like the unnecessary '90s-style flashbacks at an orphanage – seem to exist purely to promote the dimensions of the camera. Others are borrowed from Motwane's own filmography, namely Bhavesh Joshi Superhero: a moonlit chase across giant drainage pipes, the plot unravelling at an abandoned (Juhu Centaur) hotel, and most of all, the quasi-vigilante track of a viral video exposing a sinister vaccine lab. It's all very familiar, and it doesn't help that the four young actors – as adequate as they are with their physical performance – struggle to pull off Mumbai's street lingo and the overwrought dialogue. It's clear that they're putting on an accent, and only Shardul Bhardwaj (from Eeb Allay Ooo!) looks convincing as the crook with a redemption arc.
That's not to say 2024 sells its soul. The director is an accomplished short-filmmaker, with delightful titles like Little Hands, Paijana and The Booth to his credit. Eventually, despite a clumsy monologue-laden climax, the film manages to retain a sense of artistic integrity. The score, by Alokananda Dasgupta, is a claustrophobic fusion of her work on Breathe, Trapped and Sacred Games, lending the one-night-in-Mumbai narrative an edge we don't often see in homegrown thrillers. Avinash Sampath's writing falters at a micro-scene level, but the setting is socially significant. That the four characters are orphans from Dharavi, better known as 'Asia's largest slum,' reveals the film's intent to draw on the infamous class tragedy triggered by the pandemic. That the four are on their own, battling through the streets to catch the final train out of Mumbai, is a dramatic reminder of the institutional apathy towards India's disenfranchised – the migrant workers, labour force and slum-dwellers – during the first lockdown. A murky revelation is composed, a bit too literally, to convey the system's ruthless plundering of the poor in the guise of survival.
For once, we see the pandemic – in whatever form – from the perspective of the neglected, not the bored city slickers who bombarded the web with gimmicky quarantine shorts from their living rooms. 2024 is far from random in that sense. It uses its commercial compulsions – like the gritty handheld-phone treatment – to riff on the roots of cultural discontent. In turn, it becomes a genre distillation of everything wrong with this country, as well as a revisionist reflection of simmering class rage. The resolution is too clean and convenient; some may call it naive, but at least it's a snappy portrait of an India that was, and still is, considered as invisible as the virus. The science and fiction are incidental, because the stories lay buried at the tombstones of reality. 2024 is around the corner. Only, the corners have long been cut.