Unpaused movie review: Young and old, poor migrants and the lonely rich share space in a pleasant pandemic anthology
Unpaused is important because it serves to chronicle the slice of history we are now living through. It helps that it is also an enjoyable, insightful affair.
castGulshan Devaiah, Saiyami Kher, Richa Chadha, Ishwak Singh, Sumeet Vyas, Lillete Dubey, Rinku Rajguru, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, Pallas Prajapati, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shardul Bharadwaj
directorRaj & DK, Nikkhil Advani, Tannishtha, Avinash Arun Dhaware, Nitya Mehra
In September this year, the Malayalam film industry rolled out the first big pandemic innovation from Indian cinema with the Fahadh Faasil-starrer C U Soon. It was shot completely during the lockdown adhering to physical distancing requirements and other government-mandated COVID19 protocols. Keeping in mind the restrictions on crew and actor interactions, director Mahesh Narayanan zeroed in on the desktop genre to tell a tale that unfolded entirely on computer and cellphone screens through video chats, texts and voice messages between a handful of characters. C U Soon worked because it was not a mere technological gimmick – the choice of form was a good fit for the story and would have made sense even if the real world was not grappling with COVID-19. Incidentally, the pandemic was not the setting of the film.
Unpaused’s innovation lies not in its technology but in the currentness of the stories it tells.
The five directors involved in this anthology were each asked by Amazon Prime Video to make a short film set in the ongoing health emergency but with a hopeful note. Nikkhil Advani, Tannishtha Chatterjee (credited here sans a surname) and Nitya Mehra were faithful to their mandate; Raj & DK and Avinash Arun Dhaware met the brief even while cleverly finding a way around it. The result is convincing positivity.
Unpaused is about human existence in the time of the novel coronavirus, when the pause button has been pressed on life as we have lived it so far but our narratives are still in play mode – at a different rhythm and pace – while we wage war on a microbe.
It begins with a bang with Raj & DK’s futuristic Glitch about an enigmatic woman on a blind date with a lonely hypochondriac who has come to dread all human contact as the pandemic refuses to relent. Saiyami Kher and Gulshan Devaiah – both fine talents – are the actors in this piece that might have been depressing in the hands of another team, but is instead thoughtful, zany and funny when handled by the men who wrote and produced the hilarious and equally thoughtful Stree and directed one of the best Hindi films of this century, Shor In The City.
Apartment directed by Nikkhil Advani – best remembered for Kal Ho Naa Ho – stars Richa Chadha as a successful businesswoman who has just learnt that her husband (Sumeet Vyas) is a sexual predator. As she descends into an abyss of anger and guilt, an annoying neighbour (Ishwak Singh) comes calling.
Advani’s short is the only one of the quintet that could have been set any time before COVID-19 without making much of a dent on the plot – after all, broken marriages, isolation and suicidal thoughts did not arrive in wealthy homes only with this virus, and the writing barely factors in the peculiarities of the pandemic situation. Apartment has less depth than its companions in Unpaused, but the cast is engaging, the narrative shrewdly arranged to sustain viewer interest and the final twist is a genuine surprise.
In actor-turned-director Tannishtha’s Rat-A-Tat, a middle-class senior citizen (Lillete Dubey) meets her young neighbour (Rinku Rajguru) who is struggling with the enforced seclusion of the lockdown and the accompanying financial uncertainty. The older woman was comfortable in her solitude all these years, but the entry of this new person tweaks her in ways she was not expecting.
Dubey, a veteran of the stage and screen, has nice chemistry with Rajguru who is known to pan-India audiences as the heroine of the Marathi blockbuster Sairat. What I enjoyed most about Rat-A-Tat is that Tannishtha treats her protagonist without the condescension with which conservatives tend to view women in her circumstances. The stereotype of the single woman – spinster, divorcee or widow – is that of a frustrated, neurotic, unattractive, miserable creature. This lady is none of the above. She is aware of, and possibly tickled by, her reputation as an eccentric, and is unapologetic about her ways. She and the storyteller even find humour in the embarrassing biological changes to the ageing human body. Most important, Rat-A-Tat touches upon a thought that most modern societies find hard to accept: that a woman may well be alone by choice. With so much going on, the script still manages to find space for a neatly delivered jibe at the Hindi snobbery that those outside the Hindi belt are subjected to.
The icing on Unpaused is the penultimate segment, Vishaanu, helmed by acclaimed cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware whose repertoire as a director has ranged from the darling Marathi film Killa to the gritty Hindi streaming series Pataal Lok. In Vishaanu, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan (from Soni and Thappad) and Abhishek Banerjee (Stree, Pataal Lok) are paired as poor migrants whose money crunch in the lockdown leads them to squat in a posh, unoccupied flat. This dream-like interlude in their poverty brings out a natural inner joy that brims over in one unexpected, beautifully conceptualised and acted, ecstatic episode that is both amusing and moving.
The poor cannot afford such unbridled expressions of happiness though, and the couple pay a price for letting down their guard.
Vishaanu is a hard act to follow, and the task falls on Nitya Mehra who earlier directed the film Baar Baar Dekho. Mehra’s Chaand Mubarak casts another veteran, Ratna Pathak Shah, with a newcomer (Shardul Bhardwaj). The fact that two out of five shorts in Unpaused feature elderly protagonists is in itself praiseworthy – how often does Hindi cinema acknowledge older people as individuals in their own right rather than as the parents and grandparents of young protagonists? Almost never.
In Chaand Mubarak, Pathak Shah plays an irritable woman in a plush apartment complex who comes into contact with an autorickshaw driver (Shardul Bhardwaj) during the lockdown. The two develop a friendship across differing mindsets, class and religious divides, and evolve as a result. The weak spot in Chaand Mubarak comes early on when the driver takes a shortcut through an unfamiliar area, his passenger gets scared and he chides her, pointing out that people like him take risks every day by allowing strangers into their vehicles. This is a tricky point – of course he is right about the risk to him, but that scene implies that her reaction is a result of her class bias and suggests an equivalence between their fears that is problematic in its gender blindness. In most situations, all other things being equal, women are in greater physical danger than men. A well-off woman may not be at risk as routinely as a poor woman, but it is factually baseless to assume that she is eternally safe. To diss any woman’s apprehensions, therefore, is unfair.
This hitch notwithstanding, Chaand Mubarak is perceptive in its own way. It smartly reveals aspects of the two leads’ backgrounds and identities in small increments, and in the end leaves an air of warmth and optimism in its wake.
When this pandemic is over, as it hopefully will be some day, children who are born after it will scarce believe that what we are now experiencing actually happened. Even for us who are going through it, sometimes our deserted streets, medical personnel in PPE kits and masked fellow citizens seem like something out of a disaster fiction flick. Unpaused is important because it serves to chronicle this slice of history. It helps that it is also an enjoyable, insightful affair.
Unpaused is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
Rating: 2.75 stars
All images from YouTube.
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