The term “film festival” at this point of time sounds like a fluffy pink unicorn. It feels mythical, like a minor miracle designed to restore a semblance of normality to a pandemic-stricken world. Even if it’s online. Even if it’s just a gimmick. Most of us are at an I’ll-eat-anything buffet. Some of us hope the dishes are palatable. Some of us are just happy to see familiar people. I, for one, don’t mind seeing actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Rajat Kapoor, Rajit Kapur and Vikrant Massey on the small screen right now. I don’t know when I’ll see them again. But I am also aware that celebrating newness is not the same as celebrating quality.
The optimistically titled ZEE5 Short Film Festival is not an anthology – it’s a random group of nine homegrown shorts simultaneously launched on the streaming platform. Some of them are safe and simplistic, and some of them, gratingly mediocre. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of them as a collection is the complete lack of diversity. I understand that stories reflect the cultural reality of a nation, but surely Indian short filmmakers must have more situations to mine than the rishta meeting between two families, the newly-wed couple melodrama and the professor-student affair? Where are the risks? Where are the concept-driven narratives that go beyond moral posturing and relationship politics? And how in the world does a banal and self-loving tribute to Rituparno Ghosh wear the futile body of a 43-minute short film?
Surely Indian short filmmakers must have more situations to mine than the rishta meeting between two families, the newly-wed couple melodrama and the professor-student affair? Where are the risks?
On an individual level, a few titles are more watchable than others. Karan Rawal’s short, Half Full, is one of two films that deals with death, and leans on the experience of its actors. Vikrant Massey plays a depressed young man writing his suicide note, Naseeruddin Shah is an enigmatic old stranger who knocks on his door and interrupts his mission. The arc of this moment is film-school-level predictable, but it’s well-performed and empathetic – largely due to the chemistry between the veteran and the freshman. That said, Half Full is still nothing to “write” home about. Gauri Daswani’s Svah! So be it and Tania Deohans’ Food for Thought, despite their smug moral-science-textbook titles and virtually identical premises, feature a competent cast. Both chamber dramas revolve around a formal meeting between two families, with the progressive girl defying the boy’s regressive parents. Svah is however awkwardly edited, while Food for Thought is somewhat self-conscious with its characterization: Everyone is an adjective rather than a person.
Sonam Nair’s Boom Boom stars a likeable Rhea Chakraborty and a one-note Manjot Singh as a newly-married couple who turn the shy suhaag-raat syndrome into a less-than-nuanced discussion on Indian gender dynamics. I have a problem with films that use farting as a crass comedic device, but Boom Boom tries its best – without quite succeeding – to present some post-dinner gas as a commentary on social conditioning. Navjot Gulati’s Second Hand, too, is based on a newly-married couple but suffers from a crippling identity crisis – it has no idea whether it wants to be a quirky middle-class dramedy or a serious cautionary tale. It has one of the most bipolar and desperate background scores I’ve heard, and culminates in a PSA-style climax that would even put the cinema-hall anti-smoking disclaimers starring Nandu to shame.
Ritubhari Chakraborty’s How about a kiss? is shabby on the technical front, but centers on a professor-student equation (of course Rajat Kapoor is the ambiguous professor) that seems to have come from a personal space. It’s a bit stretched and stars a director who struggles to act, but the film at least tries to transcend the stereotypical sleaziness of this template. Manu Chobe’s Heartbeat is terribly crafted, wasting a potentially profound premise of an author (Anupriya Goenka) in conversation with the spirit of her comatose husband (Rajeev Khandelwal). But the worst of the lot is Seasons Greetings, directed by Raj Kamal Mukherjee, in which Celina Jaitley and Lilette Dubey play daughter and mother in a pretentious and whispery Kolkata-based ode to filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh. It’s essentially a lyrical op-ed column masquerading as a meaningful short that is 40 minutes too long. But not even fans of the late director can be swayed by this one: The dialogue is stilted, the references are self-indulgent and the ending is a painfully righteous nod to Ghosh’s sexuality.
Everyone deserves better, not least the restless lockdown audiences keen to explore the medium of short filmmaking. If I had to critique this collection in the language of its titles, here’s how it would read: The glass is Half Empty, there’s no Food for Thought on this Second Hand table, its Heartbeat might occasionally go Boom Boom, so How About A Miss?