Unpaused, On Amazon Prime Video, is A Rare More-Hit-Than-Miss Anthology, Film Companion

Directors: Nupur Asthana, Ayappa KM, Ruchir Arun, Shikha Makan, Nagraj Manjule
Writers: Nupur Asthana, Samina Motlekar, Shubham, Ayappa KM, Ruchir Arun, Abhinandan Sridhar, Shikha Makan, Nagraj Manjule, Sudhir kulkarni
Cast: Shreya Dhanwanthary, Priyanshu Painyuli, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Saqib Saleem, Ashish Verma, Sam Mohan, Darshana Rajendran, Lakshvir Singh Saran, Neena Kulkarni, Nagraj Manjule
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Normalize anthology fatigue. As a weekly film critic, I’m wary of anthologies and biopics the moment they’re announced – and I have no qualms admitting it. Also, normalize being unable to tell an anthology film from an anthology series – no, really, what’s the difference? Most of all, normalize pandemic-anthology fatigue. I’m doubly wary of pandemic anthologies in what is now the third year of a global pandemic – and I have no qualms admitting it. It’s safe to say, then, that I was quite wary going into Unpaused: Naya Safar, Amazon’s follow-up to the supremely average Unpaused (2020). At least Unpaused could pivot on the novelty of the new normal: the loneliness, the hustle, the migrant exodus and the cultural quake. The aftershocks may linger today, but 2020 feels like a distant memory. For better or worse, we’ve ‘settled’ into the dust. 

Fortunately, Unpaused: Naya Safar is far from stale. It respects the continuity of crises. If the first hinged on the struggle to survive, this one captures the struggle to live. The five-part anthology reveals the vignettes of an India in the throes of a deadly second wave. Most of the characters look like they’ve been through a year of uncertainty already, so a relapse seems to be taking a different emotional toll on them. You can tell that they’re in a loop, and the prospect of another lockdown is more annoying than frightening. What’s more, Unpaused: Naya Safar has the best hit rate in recent memory. Of the five segments, two are bonafide standouts, one is above average, one is middling and only one is a total misfire. In short, all bases are covered. I apologize for the very specific rating but this is as good as it gets. 

I’ll start with the above-average short. The Couple, by Nupur Asthana, looks like it’s been made by Ruchir Arun of Little Things fame (who’s actually directed Teen Tigada, the middling one). The Couple is about a young, suburban, two-income household in Mumbai that creaks under the pressure of pandemic layoffs. It features two rising stars in Shreya Dhanwanthary (as Akriti) and Priyanshu Painyuli (as Dippy) as the married couple with hectic work-from-home schedules and thriving careers. Home in their case is a smart, designer Lower Parel apartment, whose rent comes into play once the wife loses her job. The film is well-performed and relevant – especially given the number of marriage-crushing stories that emerged from city lockdowns – and for once, I could believe that two young and ambitious characters opted for a higher standard of living. 

But the only problem with The Couple is the problem with most ‘relationship’ shorts. The beats are predictable, the resolution is inorganic – and the conflict feels too written, too condensed to fit the 25-minute running time. For instance, deep into their marital turmoil, Akriti hears Dippy leave the house on their anniversary morning. Most partners would wait a while before the gravity of the situation dawns on them. But the limited running time means Akriti here immediately panics and wonders what to text him and how to apologize. Her softening is rushed rather than teased out. An ending isn’t always necessary.

Also Read: Anthology Film Fatigue Is Real – And Here To Stay

Which brings me to Ruchir Arun’s Teen Tigada, a short that’s as entertaining as it is empty. It’s about three crooks forced to hide in a rundown factory once the second wave shuts down all escape routes for their heist loot. Their two days turn into an indefinite stay, leading to temper tantrums and bonding in equal measure. One of them, Nandan (Saqib Saleem), has a pregnant wife and makes a habit out of venting on the youngest (a hilarious Ashish Verma). The middle man, a local (Sam Mohan), watches motivational videos to tackle an addiction problem. The chemistry and brimming masculinity between the three actors is solid, but you can sense that the filmmaking is trying too hard to legitimize the premise. The ticking-clock score, the tense montages of monotony and the random violence make for a weird genre-fluid experience – with a sort of much-ado-about-nothing tone. There is still one excellent comic sequence that culminates in Ashish Verma, whose character has been craving for samosas, trying to buy some off the cops who’ve detained them. He even attempts to bargain with them (“10 ka 2?”), a moment that rescues this eccentric short from mediocrity. 

Speaking of mediocrity, Shikha Makan’s Gond Ke Laddu is squarely the weakest of the lot. A soapy aesthetic and tinkle-comics simplicity looms large over a plot featuring an old woman, a courier agent and his last-ditch efforts to restore her crushed package. The casting is strange, too, with the younger characters looking at complete odds with their lower-middle-class setting. The segment looks so dated – the pandemic is all but irrelevant to the premise – that it single-handedly lowers the overall quality of the anthology. 

That said, War Room, led by the formidable Geetanjali Kulkarni, is one of two shorts that I expect to see in several year-ender lists. (I know it’s only January, but you know when you know). It’s directed by Ayappa KM, a talented filmmaker whose previous short – The Guest, starring Avinash Tiwary – was a masterfully wicked riff on hill-station horror. War Room lies at the other end of the narrative spectrum, with Kulkarni playing Sangeeta Waghmare, a BMC school teacher volunteering in a Covid war room. Sangeeta is one of many frontline workers manning the phones and allocating hospital beds to callers in need; the film is centered on the day she answers a phone call that summons the trauma of her own past. War Room is eerily authentic, plunging us into a world on the other side of phone calls we hoped to never make. The makeshift classrooms and severely under-funded setting become a source of wry humour – particularly during the visit of a local politician, who sheepishly pulls up his mask when told that the selfie will be posted on Twitter. The lack of pens in the room, too, transcend the writing-on-the-wall metaphor, conveying a system that’s constructed purely from the bricks of human spirit.  

Another remarkable aspect is the writing, and its refusal to gentrify the protagonist’s moral dilemma. It resists the temptation of turning Sangeeta into a noble hero for the sake of a clean narrative. The fact is that broken-hearted people are messy and often lack the clarity we crave to see. Kulkarni’s performance is distressingly good, from the rehearsed twang of her protocol voice to her quivering meltdown on a phone call to the way she keeps adjusting an ill-fitting mask. She thinks nothing of her nose sticking out of the mask. But it’s not a typical Indian habit in her case – Kulkarni makes it look as though Sangeeta, a grieving mother, is less afraid of contracting the virus compared to regular people. The damage has been done. There is no mask for her mind: the war room of her body and the only part of her that’s truly suffering. 

Suffering is the visual language of Vaikunth, a terrific Nagraj Manjule short that – despite a familiar setting – remains firmly rooted in the director’s caste-centric filmography. Manjule himself stars as Vikas Chavan, a tireless cremation worker at the height of India’s second wave. The ambulances keep coming, and Vikas – a single father whose own old father is hospitalized – keeps unloading. The stigma associated with his job – at a time when literally every human becomes untouchable – leads to his eviction from a small tenament. He has no choice but to make the cremation site his son’s temporary home. The boy keeps count of the bodies arriving in each ambulance, while Vikas continues to burn bodies and deliver the ashes – from six-feet distance – to their agonized loved ones. At night, he sleeps on the same cart he uses to transport the bodies. The film counts on a sense of unforgiving repetition; one can almost smell the procedural nature of grief. Yet, the desensitization of those like Vikas hits differently. Stranded at the center of history, they must make a living from the dying.  

In many ways, the iconic Danish Siddiqui-shot image – a photograph that told a searing story of government apathy and broken systems – emerged from the flames of Vikas’ funeral pyres. Manjule pays an ode to the late Siddiqui with a similar top-angle shot, before diving back into the smoke and grime of this embattled work. But perhaps the definitive trait of Vaikunth – much like the famous Sairat – is the film’s stylistic duality. The short, too, presents two distinct languages of storytelling: hyper-realism and hyper-escapism. Only, Manjule times it in such a way that one language almost collapses into the other. Like an overstuffed balloon aching to burst, the realism – including a scene featuring a man mourning his late father at the wrong pyre, which might have been played for dark humour in a more mainstream movie – wishes into existence the final minutes of slow-motion melodrama. The interplay between the two is hypnotic, marked by a recognition of form over substance. It’s a fitting end to an anthology that proves how pandemic storytelling – unlike lockdown filmmaking and ODI cricket – can never really get old. 

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