Director: Nikhil Bhat
Writers: Radhika Anand, Nikhil Bhat, Ayesha Syed, Mautik Tolia
Cast: Shweta Tripathi Sharma, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Sanjay Kapoor, Arjun Mathur, Rukhsar Rehman, Indraneil Sengupta
Cinematographer: Piyush Puty
Streaming on: Voot Select

A young banker named Sahil returns to Mumbai and quarantines in his bedroom. His wife Suhani, a social media influencer, sleeps in the living room. The rest of his family – father Rajeev, mother Suneeta and sister Amara  – joke about his hypochondria and social distancing on video calls. But he soon shows symptoms, things escalate quickly, and before they know what hits them, Sahil is gone. The virus has claimed him. Yet, something doesn’t feel right. A year ago, a premise with terms like “quarantine” and “symptoms” and “distancing” might have needed specifics. But the language of living has acquired the vocabulary of dying in 2020. Evidently, so has the language of suspense.

March feels like a lifetime away, but The Gone Game cleverly weaponizes the haplessness that dawns upon a nation in the early days of a global pandemic. The four-episode series is an ambitious thriller defined entirely by the rules – the confusion, paranoia, disbelief, restrictions, immobility – of a freshly imposed lockdown. In fact, a lockdown is inherently ripe with templates of a psychological thriller: confined characters think of the worst before hoping for the best. The period is important. March is a time when Indians are still unsure about how fearful to be. The cases are still in the hundreds; this adds to the suddenness and characters’ lack of initiative. They’re still coming to terms with the bigger picture, which is why they aren’t yet in the mental position to question their own circumstances. For instance, Sahil texting his wife becomes the only proof of infection. Nobody is allowed to help or see him. His isolation, whether in the house or hospital, adds to the mystery of his disappearance. Little details – like the news of Sahil’s death via phone – circumvent the viewer’s mind. We take the information for granted. This “new normal” informs an unlikely plot. The parents are stuck in different cities. Suspicions have to be resolved on the internet. The cremation of a Covid patient is done remotely by strangers; physical evidence is not an option. What you see on cellphone and laptop screens is what you believe. 

Technology becomes an internal organ rather than an external extension. The way family members react, with no physical proximity, is different. Speaking to faces on a screen doesn’t always imply distance anymore; the actors do a good job of emoting to machines without ever normalizing the setup. The family looks affluent enough to be comfortable with instinctive video calls and fancy apps. The parents (Sanjay Kapoor and Rukhsar Rehman) aren’t exactly awkward on devices, but it’s the daughter (an urgent Shweta Tripathi Sharma) who comes up with a plan to track Sahil’s (Arjun Mathur) digital footprints. The wife (Shriya Pilgaonkar) being an Instagram addict – her #RIP and #gonetoosoon posts are morbidly current – also plays on our perception of influencers. (The mother’s agony about Suhani’s Insta updates are smartly placed). Most of us aren’t conditioned to take them seriously, which in turn builds a sense of distrust towards a ‘modern’ character like her in a story. 

The oxygen of life has been cut off, but it’s gratifying to know that the oxygen of storytelling always finds a way

But some of the writing, like hiring a hacker to break into phones and cameras, is too convenient. It offers easy answers in an unprecedented situation. Technology aids and disrupts human communication in equal measure. As a result, the final twist isn’t as satisfying; one can sense that the makers are a bit handicapped in the visual grammar of revelation. It’s unchartered territory, and not all loopholes can be passed off as lockdown limitations. But the way the narrative is shot and edited – indoors yet remotely – highlights the characters’ restless energy without compromising on the “genre” of the story. For instance, a red herring feels like an organic offshoot in a frantic emotional landscape. It preys on the characters’ as well as the viewers’ anxiety.

It’s this context (a pandemic, a clueless country) that distinguishes The Gone Game in a genre populated by superior digital thrillers like Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching. So much of it is unsettling: the grief of losing someone to a mysterious disease is upended by the shock of being unable to track the truth. Nobody can do a thing. Primal survival instincts numb the humanity of people. Therefore, humanity itself becomes the story. Even venturing out to meet a friend can turn into a thriller these days. The oxygen of life has been cut off, but it’s gratifying to know that the oxygen of storytelling always finds a way. After all, being in the dark is the default setting for seeing the light. 

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