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
The most poignant image in Unpaused: Naya Safar comes in the last film – Vaikunth directed by Nagraj Manjule. The director also plays the lead role of Vikas Chavan, a worker at the Vaikunth crematorium. The second wave is raging. The place is overrun with bodies. Vikas spends much of his day surrounded by death and smoke. He carries the bodies out of the ambulance, arranges them on a pyre, even lights them when relatives are reluctant to come close, and then hands over ashes. At one point, he gives a man a pot that holds the remains of someone the man knew and perhaps loved. Vikas sets it on the ground. The man sprays it and then picks it up. Even the dead need disinfection.
Unpaused: Naya Safar is not exactly a sequel but more a continuation of Unpaused, which released in 2020. There isn’t much that is new in this ‘Naya Safar.’ Once again, we have an anthology of five shorts which look at life in a pandemic and the many ways in which the virus has upended lives. But there is one improvement. In the first anthology, there was one stand-out film – Vishaanu directed by Avinash Arun Dhaware. In this one there are two – Vaikunth and War Room, directed by Ayappa KM and co-written by Shubham who also wrote Vishaanu and the brilliant, award-winning Eeb Allay Ooo!
In Vaikunth, Nagraj immerses us into the banality of mass death and what happens when tragedy becomes routine. Vikas does his job with unsentimental efficiency. He doesn’t have a choice. He eats his meal while a woman wails in the background and finds respite in a drink when the day is done. Vaikunth, written by Nagraj and Sudhir Kulkarni, finds the absurd humor in this grimness – at one point, a man is told that he is praying and weeping in front of the wrong body. His is somewhere else. The frames in Vaikunth are drained of color. Smoke from the burning pyres permeates almost every scene. In one, we see a little boy, Vikas’s son, doing his homework while bodies burn. It’s small moments like this which bring home the enormity of the calamity and how much people have suffered. And yet the beauty of this film is that Nagraj doesn’t allow us to despair. Despite disease and death, life pulsates and persists.
As it does in the other gem – War Room. This short is set in a Covid war room, where men and women work the phones, trying to fire-fight. The roof is leaking. There is an inexplicable shortage of pens so they scramble to share as they frantically write down addresses. Opportunistic political leaders make the rounds, most for photo-ops. But the crisis management continues – helping sick people find hospital beds, counselling frantic relatives, offering a sliver of hope at a bleak time. Geetanjali Kulkarni plays Sangeeta, a school teacher and widow, now working in the war room. One of the calls Sangeeta picks up happens to be regarding a man she has a tragic personal connection with and she finds herself grappling with a moral conundrum.
Geetanjali is one of those actors who enhances every scene she is in. She gives Sangeeta resilience but also an over-arching sadness. Her dignity and loneliness are heart-breaking. Like Vaikunth, War Room immerses us into the minutiae of a catastrophe in real-time. DOP Tassaduq Hussain – you recall his stellar work in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara and Kaminey – captures the drudgery and drabness of Sangeeta’s world. And yet, like Vikas, she endures. Which given the circumstances – her own and that of the world – is heroic.
The other three shorts – The Couple directed by Nupur Asthana, Teen Tigada directed by Ruchir Arun and Gond ke Laddu directed by Shikha Makan – are bland glimpses of lives interrupted. The Couple is about middle-class, married professionals whose relationship frays after the wife loses her job.The film explores how much the pandemic has disrupted lives – even those of affluent, educated people with opportunities. Shreya Dhanwanthary and Priyanshu Painyuli do a competent job but the writing and direction are generic.
Teen Tigada and Gond ke Laddu can’t overcome the script hurdle either. Teen Tigada has an intriguing idea – three low-level goons are stuck in an abandoned factory during a lockdown with stolen loot that they now can’t sell. But Ruchir doesn’t do much with this or his actors who include Saqib Saleem and Ashish Verma. The best thing about Gond ke Laddu is the lovely Malayalam actor Darshana Rajendran, who you might recognise from Mahesh Narayanan’s C U Soon. I hope we see her work more often in Hindi cinema.
Like most anthologies, Unpaused: Naya Safar, suffers from inconsistency. This collection proves yet again that a short film is a specialised art form with its own, very specific mastery.
You can watch Unpaused: Naya Safar on Amazon Prime Video.