Unpaused Series Review: Lockdown anthology looks back with a smile
Friendship and hope shape five stories about life in the pandemic
Streaming releases are meant to have longer shelf lives, yet I can’t think of a better time to catch Unpaused on Amazon Prime Video. Watch this film next month, in the new year, and it’ll probably play a little differently. Sure, the pandemic will still be around, and many of these stories are built to resonate into the distance. But they won’t feel as they do now, with their palpable mix of hope and regret.
Glitch, by Raj & DK, unfolds in the era of ‘COVID-30’; a hang-up in a VR dating room brings an unlikely couple together. The Apartment (by Nikkhil Advani), Rat – A – Tat (by Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Chaand Mubarak (by Nitya Mehra) are stories of strangers coming together in unique or redemptive ways. And in Vishaanu (by Avinash Arun), a migrant family enjoys a moment’s repose in a posh apartment. The five stories are stitched together by the theme of ‘new beginnings’, some have songs and snatches of humour, most end on an uplifting note.
Directors: Raj & DK, Nikkhil Advani, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Avinash Arun, Nitya Mehra
Cast: Gulshan Devaiah, Saiyami Kher, Richa Chadha, Sumeet Vyas, Ishwak Singh, Lillete Dubey, Rinku Rajguru, Abhishek Banerjee, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shardul Bharadwaj
The casting is pitch-perfect. Though the actors are mostly Amazon alums, they are paired up wonderfully well. Gulshan Devaiah and Saiyami Kher brighten up Glitch, a modestly futuristic tale of a hypochondriac man falling for a covid ‘warrior’. Lillete Dubey and Rinku Rajguru keep the otherwise unremarkable Rat – A – Tat flowing. Richa Chadha, playing a woman reeling from the sexual harassment allegations against her husband in The Apartment, chimes well with Ishwak Singh, as a blabbering do-gooder.
The best team-ups come near the end. Abhishek Banerjee and Geetika Ohlyan locate rare humanity and warmth in Vishaanu. The actors shine in their scenes with each other and without. “Have trains resumed?” Abhishek asks the security guard of a building. “Have they?” comes the excited response. In another scene, tucking away food packets for her family, holed up inside a ‘sample flat’ for weeks, Geetika gives a soundbite to relief workers. “Jo sehar roti deta hain woh acha hai,” she tells the camera calmly. “The city that feeds is good.”
Equally moving, though more in sync with the rest of the film, is Chaand Mubarak. A single upper-class woman (Ratna Pathak Shah) is driven around the city by a young rickshaw driver (Shardul Bharadwaj). She’s distrustful at first, but soon starts calling on him on a regular basis. He tells her he misses his daughters, left behind in his hometown. She informs him that she isn’t married, doesn’t have children. Suddenly, they are lost in a conversation. This has been the most striking lesson of the pandemic — the friendship and trust that grows while working through a crisis together.
The timing of a story affects its visual design. The Apartment begins on the first day of the lockdown, and feels appropriately tense and jarring. Rat – A – Tat and Chaand Mubarak are set mid-pandemic, with a quiet practicality setting in. Glitch, taking place in the future, has colour-coordinated PPE suits and VR pubs. Since the film was shot post the shutdown, we see a fair bit of outdoors: Abhishek and Geetika foraging for food or work, Ratna and Shardul on their nightly trips. The effect, though, is oddly disorienting, like watching a dystopic version of a city you know too well.
Unpaused, while looking ahead, also tries to look back. A cop turns down a minor complaint citing covid overload. The migrant couple, having lost their house and jobs, is gathering money to flee the city. Suicide turns up not just in The Apartment but also Glitch, Saiyami’s vaccine scientist saying many of her colleagues are driven to end their lives (she herself falls on a low phase). Occasionally, like in The Apartment, the tone gets overly preachy. Mostly, though, the writing stays sharp: the neighbours in Rat – A – Rat sharing a walnut cake and trading life stories is a scene refreshingly free of judgement.
But there’s another kind of looking back going on in Unpaused. Gulshan, Lillette, and Ratna are all fans of classical music. There’s talk of Valentine’s Day — and how the virus ended it. When Abhishek tells a man he’s from ‘Bagwara, Rajasthan’, his faltering voice reveals his fear of never returning there. Maybe none of them will — to homes real and imagined. The film bats for a better time, but also acknowledges what is lost.