Director: Arati Kadav
Writers: Arati Kadav, Zain Matcheswalla
Cast: Richa Chadha, Mrinal Dutt
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
I've always been fascinated by the protagonists of disaster movies. More often than not, these misfits in charge of saving the world are brooding adults leading dysfunctional lives. The responsibility of heroism rarely leaves any scope for existential dread; they rescue themselves by rescuing the planet. The narrative pressure of feature-length drama favours action over thought. But Cargo director Arati Kadav's new short, 55Kms/Sec, is rooted in the space of individualistic sci-fi indies like Mike Cahill's Another Earth. The roles are reversed: human nature is the hurtling meteor, while the science fiction itself is the broken hero. And the rescuing is unrequited: looking upward is the new looking inward. Redemption, for the young, is more of a silent selfie than a noisy family portrait.
Much like in Cargo, the fleeting details of 55Kms/Sec tell a story. The 22-minute short is centered on a boyish man named Suraj (which translates to Sun), who has been anything but sunny all his life. On the day a meteor called Celestine (loose translation: heavenly) is hurtling towards our hapless planet at the velocity of 55kms/sec, sullen Suraj joins a group call and expresses his feelings to Srishti (loose translation: creation), a woman he has long loved. Once the meteor strike is "delayed" by ten minutes, this leaves just enough time for the finality of an awkward phone call, reminiscent of the one between Cargo's Vikrant Massey and Konkona Sen Sharma.
The physical premise of 55Kms/Sec – a coming-of-age arc at the end of age – is sweet, but undone by a clunky marriage of writing and performance. The moderator of the group call looks distinctly uncomfortable on screen, ruining what could have been an introspective chat. Even the others on the platform don't quite look like they're about to die; sci-fi walks the thin line between self-awareness and parody, but at times it can appear as though the film doesn't take itself seriously enough. Suraj's final phone call with his father, too, is too heavy on exposition to have any bite. Not for the first time, Richa Chadha's strangely lilting sense of dialogue delivery makes for a shabby portrait of urbane inertia. While Chadha thrives as characters of middle-Indian quirk and strength, she often stumbles as a city girl. In a short film, this stands out like a sore thumb – in all of two exchanges, her Srishti makes it hard to believe in the urgency of Suraj's heart. Even when she pines for her son, it never really seems like something personal is at stake.
What her presence does, however, is give Suraj the chance to verbalise the soul of the story. At one point, he mentions that he has been reclusive and disinterested in human contact for most of his life, and it wasn't until the news of impending mass extinction that he felt a little less alone – "we're all in this together, feeling the same thing now". That's when it becomes clear that the world-building of the world-is-ending premise is very much rooted in the psychological ironies of this global pandemic. The anticipation of a more absolute crisis – like a meteor strike or nuclear explosion – lends a sense of immediacy to the slow-burning ambiguity of a pandemic. The establishing montage of Suraj – where he walks the empty streets, eats alone on a terrace, shops in a deserted supermarket – exists as a link between his past and his present. It's only now that his physical space has morphed into his mental space. Introverts like Suraj feel their loneliest in crowds and bustling environments, which is why he suddenly looks at peace in the disquieting dread of a world on the verge of pieces. Now he belongs. Now everyone feels the heat of the sun at once.
It's a profound message, and can only have come from a film that was shot and made in the thick of lockdown. Most of us, like the makers and their overcast protagonist, have learnt the difference between solitude and loneliness in this last year. For some of us, it's oddly lyrical that social isolation has unlocked our dormant sense of community. Unfortunately, the only real tragedy of 55Kms/Sec is its choice of love as a device of awakening. After all, the responsibility of romance is more tangible than the responsibility of heroism. It's the red-blooded boys who turn into the brooding adults battling celestial bodies.