Unpaused, directed by Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K., Nikkhil Advani, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Avinash Arun, and Nitya Mehra, and written by Reshu Nath, Nidimoru, Krishna, Advani, Sayunkta Chawla, Devika Bhagat, Shubham, Mehra, Vidur Nauriyal, and Tarun Dudeja, is an anthology film that tells five stories based on the COVID-19 lockdown. With expert direction, writing, cinematography, production design, score, and performances, it excellently manages to stand out from all the content that’s capitalising on the pandemic by not only accurately showing the health issues, both mental and physical, that have taken center stage but also by generating a sense of hope in a way that’s non-melodramatic and inspirational.
Two weeks ago, if you would’ve asked me if I am interested in watching Unpaused, I think I would have punched you in the face. I will tell you why. I had gone through a bunch of phases during this COVID-19 pandemic lockdown/isolation. The two most significant ones involved watching old movies about virus outbreaks or just someone who’s in isolation and bearing recently made films about virus outbreaks. Movies in the first category were fine (I have made two lists which you can check out here and here) because they were well-made and had some underlying commentary about mankind and nature. The ones in the second category i.e. Pandemic, Pandemic: COVID-19, Pandemic: How to Prevent An Outbreak, Alone, Songbird, Putham Pudhu Kaalai, etc., weren’t. They were hastily made content pretending to be relevant, that’s it. So, I assumed that Amazon Prime’s latest offering will be the same. I was wrong!
Unpaused consists of five stories. Glitch is directed by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, it’s written by Reshu Nath, features Gulshan Devaiah and Saiyami Kher, the cinematography is by Pankaj Kumar, the production design is by Saini S. Johray, the editing is by Sumeet Kotian and Dharmendra Kakarala, the music is by Ketan Sodha and Fiddlecraft, the sound design is by Pramod Chandorkar, and the costume design is by Harpreet Singh Sawhney. Apartment is directed by Nikkhil Advani; it features Richa Chadha, Sumeet Vyas, Ishwak Singh, Mahathi Ramesh, Dilnaz Irani, Sachin Kathuria, and Sachin Kumbhar, it’s written by Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh, the DOP is Kaushal Shah, the production design is by Priya Suhass, the costume design is Sheetal Iqbal Sharma, the editing is by Sachin Kunal and Sagar Manik, the music is by Ashutosh Pathak and Tanishk Bagchi, and the sound design is by Tarun Kumar Bhandari. Rat-a-tat features the work of director Tannishtha Chatterjee, actors Lillete Dubey and Rinku Rajguru, writers Devika Bhagat and Ishita Moitra, DOP John Jacob Payyapalli, editor Antara Lahiri, production designer Parichit Paralkar, costume designer Aastha Sharma and Reann Moradian, sound designer Sohel Sanwari, and Bay Music House. Vishaanu, directed by Avinash Arun, is made of actors Abhishek Banerjee, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, writer Shubham, DOP Navagat Prakash, editor Sanyukta Kaza, production designer Mukund Gupta, composers Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor, sound designer Sohel Sanwari, costume designer Sachin Lovalekar. Chaand Mubarak, directed by Nitya Mehra, features actors Shardul Bhardwaj and Ratna Pathak Shah, writers Vidur Nauriyal, Tarun Dudeja, and Mehra herself, DOP Jay Oza, editor Manas Mittal, production designer Tiya Tejpal, composers Naren and Benedict, sound designers Resul Pookutty and Vijay Kumar, and costume designer Sheetal.
Wow! That looks like a huge paragraph full of people but there are more who I would’ve loved to give shout-outs to because they’ve all done such a brilliant job. But we have a review to get on with. So, I request you to stay back for the credits after watching the film out of respect for all the people who have risked their lives and worked in Unpaused so that we could get a few hours of entertainment. Alright? Promise? Okay, so since this is an anthology film, I’ll be going through each short individually and explaining what works and what doesn’t work (I am just kidding, everything works in all the shorts. Aise hi 5/5 nahi mila hai) and I’ll keep it as spoiler-free as I can so that you can get the fresh experience that I did. Let’s go!
This is quintessential Raj and DK. Everything from the plot to the characters, the production design, the cinematography, and the genre it is functioning in is dialed up to eleven. But it isn’t alienating because what they’re presenting is what we see in our nightmares currently. So, it’s a weird mixture of science fiction and hardcore realism. Both Saiyami Kher and Gulshan Devaiah completely commit to their respective characters so that we can believe that their characters have been and still are going through insanely tough times. I am going to break out this phrase after a long time: “It’s still a better love story than Twilight”. The writing flows so well and is presented smartly and humourously through monologues, dialogues, and stylised text (Kudos to the art director for that!). I really liked the jibes at performative appreciation and the constant crusade against love that the current Government is raging right now just because they know shit about it. And, given how I am a lot like Devaiah’s character, I welcomed its message about starting to trust real human beings again even though your definition of it has been crushed to its core by this pandemic.
I think that if this Nikkhil Advani directorial was a one-woman play with Richa’s character going through various levels of existential crisis, with no flashbacks or any other human interaction, it would’ve worked. Because Chadha is that good. The way she shows this volcano of repressed feelings erupting is so subtle and yet engaging that you’ll forget that another character hasn’t entered the frame in a long time. However, her whole act, the story, and the underlying message about survival is aptly accentuated by Vyas’s hate-inducing performance and Ishwak’s heart-warming act. I won’t lie that I was almost in tears during Chadha and Ishwak’s final altercation. The writing builds up to it and via very carefully written words it evokes a lot of bittersweet events that we all have probably experienced during this lockdown. Advani sets out to show how we’ve boxed ourselves into these lavish apartments, burdened ourselves with memories of bigoted people, thinking that there’s simply nothing to do but to rot, even though help is just a few meters away and how reaching out to those who are reaching out to you can save two lives, and he does so perfectly.
Chatterjee’s short is the simplest and the most intimate one that you’re going to get out of this lot. It’s just two people from different generations talking to each other, sharing their experiences, and finding common ground to co-exist until the micro (The rat) and the macro problems (The pandemic) aren’t over. Well, actually, there’s a lot more going on in there which isn’t very apparent but if you look closely at it, you’ll see it. For example, when Dubey is complaining about the thaali-banging session that her neighbour conducts, the police says that there’s more noise on the 9 PM news. There’s an ongoing commentary on Hindi imposition. And it also hints at how the pandemic has been used to cut down on everyone’s salaries, especially those who have come to Mumbai to live independently and have no other option but to go back if they don’t get the money they deserve. That shit’s personal and all these topics are handled beautifully by Chatterjee and fueled by Dubey and Rajguru’s incredibly cute performances. Also, a shoutout to the production designer for making the set feel like a place that’s an extension of Dubey’s character.
Just a forewarning, this is bleak. And it is depicted brilliantly by stringing really great bits of visual storytelling. Yes, it reiterates what we probably have been saying amongst ourselves about how there’s a surplus of places for shelter and how we’ve mindboggling amounts of food in storage, so why are migrant labourers, or just unprivileged people in general, suffering like anything? But saying is one thing but seeing is another thing. The shots of the spacious house the migrants are squatting in and that scene involving an organisation that delivers food and masks says it all. Coming to the acting, what can I say about Abhishek and Geetika that hasn’t been said yet? They’re just too good. They’ve no right to be this good! Just kidding, they have every right to be this good and they should continue to blow our skulls by showing us how they can vanish into any character they take on. I can go on and on about them but I’ll limit it to this: there’s a millisecond of a moment which they share where it becomes clear that their time in paradise is over. It crushed me. Also, a mini shoutout to Hemant Kher’s cameo.
If I go by the notes that I have written after watching Nitya Mehra’s short, here’s how it’s going to go. Tackling class divide: perfect. Tackling religious divide: perfect. Tackling humanity divide: perfect. Writing and dialogues: perfect. The way in which all those divides close up: perfect. Cinematography: perfect. Sound design: perfect. Costume design: perfect. Music: perfect. Ratna Pathak Shah: perfect. Shardul Bhardwaj: perfect! I bawled at the end of this story. And they were happy tears. But yes, I bawled because it’s everything that you want to see out of the people in your society after coming out of this horrific pandemic. You don’t need to agree. You don’t need to see eye-to-eye. You just need to help each other and co-exist. Is it hard? Yes. Still, you have to do it because that is the right thing to do. Also, Mehra makes a neat point about marriage which made me, someone who’s against marriage, rethink my POV. Now, I think a lot has been said about Shah, who is amazing, so I won’t repeat that. What I will say instead is that don’t forget to feast your eyes on the effortless acting by Shardul. He is, in my opinion, one of the best actors of our generation and he deserves all the attention coming his way.
The biggest problem that occurs in anthology films nowadays is that it isn’t a cohesive product. Some of them don’t even have a throughline to connect them. Some of them are made of shorts that hugely vary in terms of quality. Unpaused, thankfully, avoids all those problems beautifully. No, they aren’t narratively connected. I mean, they’re technically connected because they’re stories set in the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, they have a throughline about survival and hope that binds them together. But most importantly, they’re structured in a way that they complement each other. I have no way of knowing if this was done intentionally or unintentionally. However, when you’ll watch it, you’ll see how the emotional quotient escalates with each movie until it blooms in the final act, thereby making the all-encompassing umbrella that they exist under seem meaningful and welcoming. So yes, I highly recommend Unpaused. And given how I know that this will likely inspire more such anthology films, I hope that filmmakers don’t just see big stars telling pandemic related stories here. I hope that they see talented storytellers coming together to tell relatable stories where a life-changing event such as a pandemic is just the catalyst.
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India