Unpaused: Naya Safar movie review — Pandemic tales with remarkable elements and unfulfilled promise
Each short in this anthology is set in the COVID19 pandemic. Nagraj Manjule confronts the pandemic full-scale in Vaikunth. COVID is the setting, significant even if not central, to the remaining four films.
castShreya Dhanwanthary, Priyanshu Painyuli, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Rasika Agashe, Saqib Saleem, Sam Mohan, Ashish Verma, Neena Kulkarni, Darshana Rajendran, Lakshvir Singh Saran, Nagraj Popatrao Manjule, Arjun Dattatray Karche
directorNupur Asthana, Ayappa K.M., Ruchir Arun, Shikha Makan, Nagraj Popatrao Manjule
Anthologies have become the go-to format for streaming platforms in the last couple of years. Ideas have ranged from assembling a group of young directors and giving them a theme that runs as a common thread through each of their shorts; to having a veteran present a collection of short films, each of which is directed by a cinema heavyweight.
Navarasa (Tamil) presented by Mani Ratnam in 2021 fell into the latter category. Unpaused: Naya Safar (Hindi) is a mix of both. A compilation of five short films featuring senior directors and rising talents, the link between them is that each is set in the pandemic.
Unpaused: Naya Safar (New Journey) is a follow-up to the charming Unpaused that dropped on Amazon in December 2020. Back then, lockdowns were a new experience for Indians, and Unpaused managed to capture the accompanying isolation and eeriness effectively.
In the 13 months since, India – the north in particular – has experienced the horror of the second wave of COVID, bodies piling up, oxygen scarcity, non-availability of spots at crematoria, and more. The final chapter of Unpaused: Naya Safar, helmed by the celebrated Marathi director Nagraj Popatrao Manjule, confronts the pandemic full-scale. COVID19 is the setting, significant even if not central, to the remaining four films.
This naya safar kicks off with writer-director Nupur Asthana’s The Couple starring Shreya Dhanwanthary and Priyanshu Painyuli as a young married couple dealing with work-from-home compulsions in their spacious flat. They are committed to each other and to their work, which makes this enforced confinement bearable. A dramatic turn of events in the career of one half of the pair has a potentially debilitating effect on their relationship.
COVID is not The Couple’s focus, but it does give the story one of its most endearing passages: a conversation between the woman, Akriti, and her domestic worker, which throws light on how well-off Indians transferred their financial worries during this period of uncertainty to their household staff and how crucial the employers’ financial welfare thus became to the staff.
Asthana, whose portfolio includes the 1990s TV series Hip Hip Hurray and the full-length feature Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge (2011), brings her easygoing narrative style to this film. The gender role reversal in the wife-husband dynamic here is noteworthy. Just when you think he has been written as a reasonable darling versus the unfair person she is, the script skilfully steers away from stereotyping. The ending, though more optimistic than a realistic reflection of the world as we know it, is still probable enough to be credible. It is also sweet. It helps that Dhanwanthary and Painyuli are attractive, natural and come across as actual friends.
Ayappa K.M.’s poignant and occasionally humorous War Room stars Geetanjali Kulkarni as a widowed schoolteacher operating a COVID helpline in her city. Power comes in many forms and this one is about the power that even a seemingly marginal job can wield. What follows the unexpected twist in this tale is not as interesting as the twist itself, but the always dependable Kulkarni’s presence sustains the short even when the writing peters out.
Ruchir Arun’s Teen Tigaadaa deals with separation from one’s usual circumstances during a lockdown and the likely disastrous effect of brakes being put on normal life. Three men indulging in illicit activities are stuck together in a remote building unable to budge because of the restrictions imposed by the government on all movement due to COVID19. They are played by the highly watchable Saqib Saleem, Sam Mohan and Ashish Verma.
The title refers to a Hindi expression implying that three is a tricky number for a group requiring understanding among them. The tension between the trio, their contrasting personalities and the representation of communities among the characters give Teen Tigaadaa its initial appeal.
The north-south mix among them runs smooth, barring a scene that resorts to the familiar person-breaks-into-mother-tongue-when-emotional-despite-knowing-that-no-one-around-understands-and-despite-being-fluent-in-their-language trope that popular culture often dips into even when it is trying, as Teen Tigaadaa seems to be, to avoid othering a character for their community. Sam Mohan plays a Malayali who switches unconsciously to Malayalam when in a temper. If anyone insists that this is not by now a cliché, do watch the next short in this very anth, and see how Darshana Rajendran’s Malayali-based-in-Delhi character is made to do precisely the same thing: when she gets wild with her north Indian husband, she grumbles at him in Malayalam. (It reminded me of Lucy’s husband bursting out in Spanish when in a temper in the old TV shows headlined by the American actor Lucille Ball – I assume it’s been around even before that.)
There is a lovely moment when the men realise that death and COVID do not spare the rich. In that scene, Saqib gets to deliver the film’s best-written line. The writers seem not to have known quite how to wrap up convincingly after a calamity occurs, and Teen Tigaadaa’s ending is far less satisfying than what came before.
Whatever be the limitations of Unpaused: Naya Safar so far, these three films work as vignettes from the pandemic. The fourth, Shikha Makan’s Gond Ke Laddu, though, does not come together. The play on “maa ke haath ka khana” (mother’s cooking) in this short is trite, and it is unable to fit its multiple disparate ingredients neatly into the plot: a grandmother unable to travel to see her new grandchild due to COVID constraints, the elderly adapting to new technology, a couple struggling to survive, exploitation in the gig economy.
Neena Kulkarni as the grandmum is likeable as always. However, Darshana Rajendran – who has done good work in Malayalam cinema so far (Virus, C U Soon) – and Lakshvir Singh Saran don’t click together nor does their characterisation or their part of the story.
Manjule brings up the rear in Unpaused: Naya Safar. The concept of his short titled Vaikunth is arresting, as is the camerawork, but the overall execution lacks the brilliance that has come to be associated with the creator of such pathbreaking works as Fandry and Sairat.
Vaikunth is the paradisiacal abode of Vishnu, The Preserver in the Hindu Holy Trinity. The protagonist of this short, Vikas Chavan (played by Manjule himself), works with the dead. His job is to handle bodies and pyres at a crematorium that shares its title with the film.
As COVID snaps up lives, work seems never-ending for him. The man assigned the delicate task of handling the remains of our loved ones is also struggling to find a place to stay for himself and his son – his terrified landlord wants him out since his father was diagnosed with COVID. A country that wants to protect itself from him has no qualms in exposing him to the disease, as he operates without a PPE kit or even gloves and a proper mask.
The hypocrisy is stark and compelling. So are the scenes at the crowded crematorium.
That said, in the matter of caste, Vaikunth fails to address a key question adequately and with clarity: what does social distancing specifically mean to a person who is already kept at bay by society? The mythological connect it appears to make, and the implied strength of the oppressed, also sits uneasy with India’s exploitative, caste-ridden reality.
Like Vaikunth, Unpaused: Naya Safar too contains remarkable elements, but in its entirety it does not necessarily live up to the promise they all hold out.
Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
Unpaused: Naya Safar is streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial
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