Directors: Gautam Govind Sharma, Punarvasu Naik, Tahira Kashyap Khurrana, Vijayeta Kumar, Smrutika Panigrahi, Vinay Chhawal, Rakesh Sain
Cast: Manjot Singh, Divya Dutta, Sanjay Kapoor, Neena Gupta, Rima Kallingal, Deepak Dobriyal, Isha Talwar, Swaroop Sampat
Streaming on: Flipkart Video
Unlike the Netflix and Humaramovie short-film anthologies, Flipkart Video Originals' Zindagi inShort is unrestricted by a common theme or, as it's known in producer parlance, a "peg". At the worst of times (Ghost Stories), it turns into a gimmick. To be fair, zindagi (life) is a peg, too, albeit a broad and adaptive one. Each of Zindagi's seven shorts looks like a story that the maker wants to tell rather than one that must forcibly fit a brief. As Masterchef Australia has taught us over the years, the participants tend to be judged against a higher standard when there are no rules – there should, by extension, be no excuses either. Yet, it's difficult to overcome the primal instinct of measuring one segment against another. (First reaction: Thappad is the standout, followed by Chhaju ke Dahi Bhalle and Sleeping Partner). But in such cases, it's perhaps wiser to measure the films against the optimal versions they can be.
For instance, let me start with the shorts that, despite some sweet performances, overstate their social environment at the cost of narrative potential. The most high-profile of the anthology is arguably Pinni, starring Neena Gupta and directed by Tahira Kashyap Khurrana (the better half of Ayushmann Khurrana). Based on a middle-class homemaker who decides to protest against her taken-for-granted status, Pinni is visibly in awe of its lead actor. Much of it is designed to highlight Gupta's uncanny body language, but the quirky background score and the repetitive framing of domestic routine point to an arc that simply bides its time to reach a striking final shot. This reverse-engineering – where the filmmaker seems to be struggling to flesh out the body leading to the solid punchline – is also visible in Vijeyeta Kumar's Sunny Side Upar, a short about a workaholic doctor (Rima Kallingal) who experiences a life-is-too-short epiphany in the hospital halls. There's not much wrong with the film, but it's the degree of rightness that matters: I didn't feel the coming-of-age rhythm of its protagonist as much as I should have. It's never easy to earn a moment of release, less so in a 20-minute sequence that can at best condense the buildup into a highway of binary feelings. Rakesh Sain's Nano So Phobia, about an old Parsi lady (Swaroop Sampat) whose growing dementia elevates her odd phobia of dwarfism, is too satisfied with its light-hearted gaze and theatrical punchline instead of aiming to examine the cultural epidemic of lonely pensioners through the lens of full-blown black comedy.
On the other hand, I enjoyed Smrutika Panigrahi's performative love satire Swaaha, in which a couple's marriage comes apart at a family wedding. Deepak Dobriyal plays, to pitch perfection, the kind of conservative small-town husband who is constantly insecure about the fact that he has punched way above his weight in the looks department. Dobriyal is a master at essaying emasculated men who are hopelessly unaware of how their tragedy looks like a situational comedy to curious onlookers. Isha Talwar, too, owns the tone of the brazen, philandering wife who is both agitated and amused by her husband's melodrama. Together, they create a social spectacle that is entertaining, but also well-worded enough to hint at years of incompatible history and unexpressed marital frustrations.
Punarvasu Naik's Sleeping Partner, starring Divya Dutta in top form, as well as Sanjay Kapoor amplifying his second wind as the obliviously abusive sheep-in-wolfskin husband, is a graver version of Swaaha and Pinni. A long-suffering housewife has an affair and rebels against years of marital rape in a loveless marriage. This description, of course, underplays the complexity of Dutta's character: She has been condescended on for so long that one expects her form of rebellion, her dashing young lover, to be her saviour. But if you've lived with a monster for decades, even a pig looks like a prince in comparison. The film subverts the extramarital template and pitches a woman against the general arrogance of mankind: a tightrope walk that doesn't fall prey to the woke, kitchen-sink-brand feminism expected from storytellers these days.
Maybe it's befitting of our times, though, that the two most charming titles of the anthology are based on children and teenagers. The young, after all, are destined to unite a world divided by its adults. Gautam Govind Sharma's Chhaju ke Dahi Balle – a short about a Tinder match between a Sikh boy (Manjot Singh) and Muslim girl (Aisha Ahmed) – is almost simplistic on a conceptual level. But it's directed, shot and paced with a fundamental grasp of heady first-crush thrill that often goes missing in modern social-media-centric plots. It understands that the depiction of app-based relationships offers the makers an opportunity to be clever about a film's visual grammar – a character can be framed anywhere in public, at different locations and times, feeling the sort of strong emotions that are otherwise restricted to private spaces. This film revels in the freedoms of digital romance, even as their story straddles the restrictions of the same.
Vinay Chhawal's Thappad, my favourite of the lot, does the same in context of a child's imagination. As a hardcore comicbook fanatic, a little boy (an excellent Shafin Patel) – beset by highschool bullies who use him as a messenger to woo his older sister (Vedika Nawani) – visualizes the dry world around him in high frame rates and wild-wild-west music (the Ennio Morricone-esque theme is a earworm). He wants his sister to defy the bullies, and so comes up with a plan that, in his impressionable eyes, would make his illustrated heroes proud. The film, part spoof and part childhood ode, has the best use of ultra slow-motion I've seen in recent times. It is also shot from the "half-ticket" perspective: We only see broad chests, waists and legs that the scrawny boy sees, sometimes a face towering above, a point of view that enables the graphic-novel-ish use of action and body language. It's been a while since a child-starring film has inspired its makers to think like a kid rather than adult approximations of kids. Perhaps ending the anthology with Thappad and its tiny hero might have truly emphasized the spirit of zindagi's shortness.