We’ve reached a point in pandemic history where lockdown-made films and shows can’t afford to be judged as necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention, spirit-of-art stories anymore. The novelty has worn off, the newness has passed. After a few high-profile digital titles (The Gone Game, C U Soon), even viewers are now conditioned to tell good from bad and well-intentioned from gimmicky. Evolution is expected. Quarantine art, more than most, is subject to the brutality of time. One month is an era. The period between conceptualization and fruition is now the difference between topical and ancient. Creators are constantly at the risk of falling behind the curve. For example, it’s September but Rohan Sippy’s Wakaalat From Home belongs to May. The story is set in March, the first two weeks of the nationwide lockdown, but the storytelling feels woefully outdated.
May is when Eros Now’s A Viral Wedding premiered: a micro-series about a young couple that decides to have an online wedding during the pandemic. It wasn’t effective but it was spirited: a sign of an industry coming to terms with a foreseeable future of remote filmmaking. Wakaalat From Home, a ten-episode micro-series about a couple having an online divorce, unfurls in the same universe. Humans become blabbering buffoons when (and because) major life decisions have to be resolved online. The audience is supposed to find the surreal facts – divorce lawyers, a warring couple, computer-screen hearings – to be stranger than fiction. That might have worked as a ten-minute skit, but ten fifteen-minute episodes of Indians adapting to the internet? Maybe not. The work-from-home chronicles of people getting distracted by domestic chores used to be cute. How the times have changed.
Wakaalat From Home reunites the Permanent Roommates couple. Sumeet Vyas is Sujin Kohli and Nidhi Singh is Radhika Sen. He’s a struggling actor, she’s a journalist living in his apartment. (It’s his grandmother’s apartment – a fact that exists only so that the answer to the carefully framed question “Have you ever heard of a grandmother buying sex for a couple?” is “arranged marriage”). She suspects he was having an affair, he suspects she’s a lesbian. Kubbra Sait is Rajni Thakkar, Sujin’s lawyer, while Gopal Datt is the clownish Lobo Tripathi, Radhika’s lawyer. The biggest problem with Wakaalat From Home is that it suffers from the standup-comic syndrome. It’s written by Anuvab Pal, and as a result, every argument is constructed in service of a punchline. Every gesture must be outlandish. The characters look like they’re performing a routine on stage – only, the routine involves a conversation and narrative with other people on screens. They aren’t speaking to each other as much as they’re satirizing lawyers and actors and married folks. And this time, both Sippy and Pal don’t have Kunaal Roy Kapoor to rescue those one-liners either.
The circumstances feel old. For instance, Sujin does an audition profile when asked to introduce himself on camera. Radhika cries a lot. Sujin’s “affair” is revealed to be a gambling problem: he’s being held hostage by a Nepali bookie in a Chembur flat. Lobo addresses Sujin as “gigolo” and “super spreader (of sperms)”. Radhika’s “friend” is her therapist, Shilpi, and the running joke is that the heterosexual Radhika is airheaded enough to describe all their naked-yoga sessions and intimate moments without realizing that Shilpi is in love with her. (“OMG, people are so hard to read” – “No, Chetan Bhagat is hard to read”). Radhika at one point accuses Sujin of being a molester – because he’s molested her “heart and mind”. At another point, she sees his soapy hands (don’t ask) and does a poor Meg-Ryan-orgasm imitation so that a lawyer can interrupt her and she can then accuse Sujin of again pulling out before she climaxes. In short, everyone seems to be trying too hard because they can’t hear the applause track.
Rajni seems to be in an abusive marriage – a device that results in one of the only two jokes that land in the series. When the others hear her quarelling with an unseen person in another room, one of them remarks: “She can’t be arguing with a virus, she’s not Arnab Goswami!”. The other joke features Lobo pretending that his screen is frozen to escape the wrath of Rajni. The action culminates in a sneeze. A sneeze is the best punchline of the series. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m too busy working from home to locate it.