Director: Pranav Bhasin
Writers: Pranav Bhasin, Sanskriti Shukla
Cast: Arnav Bhasin, Sanskriti Shukla
Editor: Pralay Valanju
Producer: Ritviz, Jugaad Motion Pictures
Streaming on: YouTube
Cabin Fever is one of the cooler lockdown-set stories produced in the last six months. A three-part mini-series of video calls between a stir-crazy young couple, Cabin Fever is directed by Pranav Bhasin. Bhasin is a classic OTT creator: his voice oozes observational wit, and like several sketch-centric artists involved in the TVF revolution, he uses wry comedy to reveal the eccentricities and fears of an entire generation. Only recently I watched his short, Wolf of Chawl Street, a wicked slumdog satire about a Mumbai-based graffiti "artist" who gets inspired by Banksy. Shot as a mockumentary, it shows up an entire filmmaking format as well as an oft-fetishized urban subculture. Arnav Bhasin, the Wolf actor, also stars in Cabin Fever – another poker-faced riff on the millennial grammar of conflict. The writing, non-serious as it may seem, blurs the line between sarcastic parody and endearing romedy.
Here Arnav is Jounty, a hyper-energetic and juvenile 20-something: the sort of almost-adult who has no filter, zero political correctness and a stream-of-consciousness Bandra-street chatter that's more of a defense mechanism against silence/isolation. Some might say he has the fluid jello-mind of a restless artist. Yet he'd be the hero's sidekick – a "sample" – in a full-length movie. Naturally, he appears as "Jounty Hustler" on the phone of his girlfriend, Sanskriti, who sounds more like a concerned mother than a partner to the good-hearted man-child. In the first episode, Sanskriti tries to talk him out of cycling and eloping to a remote village on the 7th day of lockdown. In the second episode, Sanskriti, preoccupied with her work-from-home job, tries to talk him out of sending a rap song as his CV for a job application. In the third episode, on the eve of their first meeting in 95 days, a paranoid Sanskriti tries to talk him out of organizing and live-streaming India's first post-lockdown rap concert.
The three episodes represent three separate phases of quarantine frustration: the cops and curfews are still a big deal in the first, humans and cabs can be seen in the third. It helps that the episodes seem to be shot that way, too – in real-time, at different points of the year, instead of shooting to recreate the feelings of the May-June-September periods. As a result, the actors don't need to pretend to be part of a premise. Their conversations then aren't built to impart information. Jounty's impulses may sound surreal, and almost sardonic, but it ties in well with his personality; their chemistry – his "dumbness" gets on her nerves, he is both oblivious and sensitive about her words – denotes a comfortable college-sweetheart equation, where one has eased into the role of the caregiver and the other, a patient.
More importantly, it feels like the makers too are coming to terms with the newness of circumstances. They aren't creating with the benefit of hindsight. Jounty speaks to Sanskriti but he's really speaking to himself, and Sanskriti is so busy course-correcting and reacting to his decisions that she forgets to think for herself. You can sense that these characters aren't used to being apart. Their descent into madness is a result of both stillness and distance: a consequence of all their flaws and hopes trapped in a cage.
Watching millennials describe their days is like watching the rich speak about recession – dysfunction has desensitized them for so long that they're unable to distinguish between problems and privilege. But you feel for Jounty and Sanskriti because they, like the rest of us, are struggling to confront the sudden pointlessness of life. Every breathless anecdote – for instance, when Jounty narrates why his television set is now hanging over his balcony ("the watchman watches the news now") – is so straight-faced that the funniness doesn't feel random. It feels accidental and, at times, oddly poignant. Like vulnerability wearing the desperation of humour. After all, comedy with context is merely tragedy without text.