Amazon Prime Video India’s Unpaused is an anthology film made of shorts by directors Raj and DK, Nikkhil Advani, Tannishtha, Aviansh Arun, and Nitya Mehra, and features Ratna Pathak Shah, Shardul Bhardwaj, Abhishek Banerjee, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Rinku Rajguru, Lillete Dubey, Richa Chadha, Sumeet Vyas, and Ishwak Singh, that was conceptualised and shot during the COVID-19 lockdown. I was lucky enough to talk to Ishwak, who has starred in the segment titled Apartment, and Banerjee, who has starred in the segment titled Vishaanu, learned about their respective characters, what they’ve taken away from them, and more.
Both of you started off this pandemic together with Paatal Lok and now you’re rounding this year’s quota of the pandemic with Unpaused. How’s this journey been?
Abhishek: “I think it’s a full circle [laughs]. You know, I think when Paatal Lok happened, that was the biggest support, Ishwak and me and everybody had that time. To have a show that is releasing and it’s distracting you from the issues you are facing in your life. I think that was a blessing in disguise. And then when you’re down and out and you’re thinking about yaar abb kya? Aage kya kaam karein? How are we going to start? Are we going to shoot in these phased periods? How are we going to shoot during these periods? And there comes a story, Unpaused, and we are back at work again. So yeah, Paatal Lok gave us hope and Unpaused gave us that much needed work that we were all worried about.”
Ishwak: “Yeah, life is just unpredictable, man. There’s no place which gives drama like life itself. As an artist, I guess you’re more aware of it because that’s your basic job. You read all these stories where there’s drama and you kind of think that ‘arre aisa toh mere zindagi mein bhi hota hai’. But that the storytelling that happens to paint the bigger picture is quite fascinating, unpredictable, and it just sort of surprises you every time. Life has its own way of balancing things and that’s what is going on in my life. Paatal Lok, I just needed it at that time! And when Unpaused came, it was another sort of thing that helped to fight the pandemic. It was therapeutic for me. You know, it was such a release which I just needed at that time. It was pretty amazing.”
The stories in your respective shorts hit too close to home. How relatable are they for you and if the situation arises, would you do the things your characters do?
Abhishek: “I think in my case, there would’ve been no option. And that’s what the story taught me. That’s what the character taught me. Because, sitting at home, we are wondering, ki how are these migrant labourers, how are they doing it? How are they walking back to their homes? How are they surviving? How are they eating? Stuff like that. And suddenly you realised that they’re doing what they’re doing due to their willpower, grit, and sadness. They’re doing it with a lot of pain. But they’re doing it. They’re surviving. And I don’t know if I can survive like that or not but if it comes down to it, maybe I will. Agar mere paas koi rasta nahi hoga toh humlog sab apne apne raaste dhund lete hai and that is what I have learnt from this story and my character.”
Ishwak: “Absolutely! It’s like the story, when I read it, it was about hope, and it just kind of took me back down the memory lane where I have kind of needed this in my life, and I have had people who had reached out to me, friends, family. I have reached out to people. And you understand that this story is coming out of [these sort of experiences]. For me, it was very very personal. It was so personal that I kind of was made aware of all these things that were a part of me. That was the premise of the character. It was all very felt. Very personal. You know, my relations with people around me, my relationship with myself, if I can say that, something within you, your inner voice which kind of pushes you at times and lifts you up and doesn’t let you give up, is pretty amazing. It was very, very personal.”
Did your latent real-world anxieties about COVID-19 enhance or your performances or did it restrict you from acting openly?
Ishwak: “Well, you know, it’s just a married layer. Nothing restricts you. Why would it restrict, I mean, I wonder? As an actor, as a performing artist, everything that’s going around you, you keep absorbing it, and it’s your reaction to all these things. If anything, this dreaded virus aids or feeds the performance. It’s tragic but it’s true. So, it was just another layer. It’s a story set in the lockdown and since you’re in the middle of it, naturally, it was like you were telling your own story.”
Abhishek: “I think that the whole process that you’re living in the time and the space when the story is happening, this is very rare yaar. And I think we’re going to think about this period a lot a few years from now. Maybe right now we are not realising it. But when years will pass by, we’ll realise that this was one opportunity where we were getting to live a time right there and then. Usually, in films, we have to make that jump in space and/or time. We have to imagine a different timeline. We have to imagine a different space, the situation, and then get yourself into it. But here we didn’t need any homework and that’s maybe why Avinash never called us for any workshop or a reading. He didn’t want us to do anything. When I asked him like ‘kya karein?’, he’s like ‘kuch karneko hai kya?’ [laughs]. And that was exclamatory. So, I was like ‘haan, sahi baat hai, kuch karneko hai nahi’, just wear your costumes and do it. Of course, you know the character, his history, and the rest is just there. It’s around us.”
Are y’all envious of the fact that your characters get a conclusion but once the cameras are off, you’ve to come back and face reality?
Abhishek: “Everytime??? [laughs] It happens everytime. That’s like everytime you come back home and you’re finishing one film or a show and basically living through the journey of a character, you really feel sad about your life ki yaar kitni boring life hai yaar. I think that’s why you start missing a character. You build personal relationships with these characters. But at the same time I think, with actors, these characters also help you in your real life. So, next time I am going to talk about hardships, I am always going to remember my character from Unpaused and remind myself that, you know, somebody lived through worse situations and times. So, you can do better. There are these small little things, and I am just giving you one example from this particular short. But there are so many examples like that from all the characters I have done or sometimes characters that others have done. You know, you take inspiration from those characters and you start changing your life, you’re tweaking certain things about your life, because we don’t have teachers regularly, right? And I somehow find my teacher in the society, you know, it teaches you how to behave, how to be more empathetic.”
Ishwak: “Yeah, yeah, I absolutely 100 percent agree with him. It’s multivalent. It’s not just one thing. It’s like when you see a story multiple times, when you see a film multiple times, it gives you new things to appreciate. Abhishek has articulated a thought that I had for a really long time really nicely. Like that guy [the character] becomes a part of your reality. He’s a fictional character but you make his experiences a part of your reality. And trust me, it’s cathartic when you think about the fact that every character gives you something that resolves your dilemmas, helps you fight your crises, gives you awarness, and makes you realise certain things that were unresolved and you were carrying them with you. Because when you’re doing this, you are kind of widening the horizon and you’re putting yourself in the shoes of the characters, you try to find commonalities, and if you can extract something from that character, it’s amazing! It stays with you and this particular one [in Unpaused] was special for me because there are certain lines that made me aware of myself. It’s amazing when I kind of remember all that in my head.”
I think that that’s beautifully put by both Abhishek and Ishwak. All of us are in a stage of our lives that’s been put into motion by this pandemic where we should take motivation from everything and anything that’s around us if it helps us untangle ourselves and move forward. Wow! It’s really good to see that the actors that you love and whose work you cherish have a sense of clarity, or are at least in a constant process of finding clarity, and are advertently or inadvertently passing it on to us, the viewers. Well, the only way to reciprocate that is by watching their work, the latest being Unpaused, giving them the love that they deserve, and spreading the word about how awesome they are.
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India