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 Advani, who has directed the segment titled Apartment, about how he depicted depression and loneliness caused due to the pandemic, his collaboration with Richa, and more.
It’s pretty evident that the inspiration for this whole anthology film is 2020 and the pandemic that came along with it. But why did you take on the story in Apartment in particular?
“It’s very personal because the one thing that, other than the lockdown and the everyday routine that everybody was going through and the medical uncertainty that was governing all our lives and whether we were going to resume our lives, kept popping was the increasing cases of loneliness and depression. On the flipside, [there were] the positive stories of finding friendship in places that you never thought existed. So, these were the two things that I decided that we should possibly put together. Because when Aparna [Purohit, Head of India Originals, Amazon Prime Video] called me up to be a part of the anthology, her thing was that these are the parameters that every filmmaker has been given, which is three days of shooting, a particular budget, etc., along with a crew that has only ten people, which includes the cast. These were the parameters that we were told [within which] we have to shoot. So, given those things, we then retrofitted the story. But these are the stories that I was moved by i.e. stories of loneliness and stories of friendship that I was hearing during the lockdown.”
Do you think that the pandemic has made us stronger in terms of fighting our inner demons or more vulnerable to them?
“I would hope that we have become able enough to deal with our inner demons. And the lockdown has allowed people to introspect. And the lockdown has allowed people to, I know that we’re talking about Unpaused, take some pause. At least in the world that I come from and the people that I interact with, we’re constantly running in a hamster wheel. We’re constantly trying to make sure that if the other person is doing this then we have to do that, all that kinda stuff. All those do not matter but really mattered for some odd reason. But now we can look back and say that it doesn’t matter. Because in March when you were paused [by the pandemic], you realised that nothing is actually in your control. Everything can be changed. So, might as well do the one thing that you’ve been procrastinating and not wanting to do. Let’s do that!”
Suicide and depression are sensitive topics. What was the preparation in order to ensure that it’s depicted properly?
“At the end of the day, as far as my preparation was concerned, it was just making sure that Richa was comfortable doing what I wanted her to do. I think that the fact that there were only 10 people, out of which only 6 were on the set, really allows you to be in that lonely space. There are not 150 people milling around the set, not allowing you to get into that zone. The thing is that the advantage of this particular story is that for two days of the shoot, she was completely alone, completely by herself, there was nobody else there. That really contributed to the prep!”
Raj and DK, who also has a short film in Unpaused called Glitch, have said that the movie’s look was pivotal. That it should feel timeless and even if you watched the movie post this pandemic, it’d look like a standard movie. Did you have any such requirements, technical or otherwise, while making Apartment?
“I think that the biggest aspect of Apartment is her loneliness. I think that’s the only thing that I and Kaushal [Shah, the cinematographer of Apartment] discussed. We had to send out a note to Amazon in LA, via the Indian team, that we wanted to shoot in 4:3 [aspect ratio]. We didn’t want to shoot in the standard [aspect ratio]. So, when you see the film, it’s 4:3, because we wanted the walls to be closing in on her. We wanted her to be confined in that space. We wanted her to feel suffocated. We wanted you to feel suffocated. We wanted you to feel that ‘I can’t breathe’. It’s very important for me that you feel the context in which the film is there. Without Richa being able to leave the apartment, actually, her spiralling won’t happen. If she could’ve left that apartment, she won’t be doing what she’s trying to do. She would possibly look for other avenues to solve what she’s feeling. But she can’t. Therefore, the lockdown is very important to the story in the film and for you to understand that it is happening [right now]. Why can’t she just open the door and go out? So, there is no timelessness. The time is actually lockdown. That is very important. The relationship that she has with Ishwak, a total stranger, is because of it’s a lockdown. She can’t turn to her usual crutches for support. She gets help from somebody who’s a total stranger”
When I started watching your movies with Kal Ho Naa Ho I was 10. Patiala House is one of my favourite films of yours. So, I’ve seen you do these polished ensemble films. But post Katti Batti, you’ve taken a grittier approach, as evident in Batla House, P.O.W., Apartment, and Mumbai Diaries, while still keeping the humane aspect alive. So, are we seeing a new chapter in your professional career?
“I don’t know what’s a new chapter, Pramit. I don’t know what’s the whole chapter, what’s the new chapter. If you see Delhi Safari, Kal Ho Naa Ho, Salaam-E-Ishq, Chandni Chowk to China, Patiala House, which I am glad that you liked, or D-Day, they’re all about human relationships. Delhi Safari, at the end of the day, is an animated film about animals going from Bombay to Delhi to talk about deforestation. But it’s very human. There’s a line in the film that the animals have come to teach humans [about] humanity. The emotions are extremely human. So, whether it be Apartment or Mumbai Diaries, it all gets derived from [the fact that] do I know these people? Yes, I know this person. I have met this person. I have listened to this person. I know how this person was helped. So, even in the case of Mumbai Diaries, do I know these people? No, I don’t. I have never been to a Government hospital. But I think that they’re all heroes. They deserve to be celebrated. But then is it only important to tell their stories? I am sure they all have personal lives and what if I can tell you their personal stories while they’re trying to do the impossible, which is to save a city. That’s what appeals to me! So, I don’t know whether it is a new chapter or a no chapter. I just know that these are the chapters that I am comfortable with.”
Isn’t that profound?! And I think I am going to keep it at that as the conclusion to this conversation instead of fanboying like a madman.
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India