Unpaused rolls out a second season that is a huge improvement on its predecessor. Taking a hard look at the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the five-episode series sets emerging talent alongside established filmmakers.
The Amazon Prime Video series also makes up for the shortcomings of its Tamil cousin Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa, which treads too lightly. By tackling the deaths, unemployment and shredded nerves resulting from enforced confinement, Unpaused: Naya Safar goes beyond the seemingly compulsive need of fiction creators to be sanguine about a devastating health crisis.
Even the feel-good stories are tinged with the realisation of what has been lost, possibly never to be regained. In Nupur Asthana’s The Couple, Akriti (Shreya Dhanwanthary) and Dippy (Priyanshu Painyuli) find their marriage tested by sudden job loss. Summarily dismissed over a video call, a gutted Akriti finds Dippy’s response wanting.
Their squabbling reaches the point at which several work-from-home couples have found themselves. Why are we even together, Akriti asks. She gets her reply soon enough. The crisp writing by Ashtana and Samina Motlekar is matched by easy chemistry between and strong performances by Dhanwanthary and Painyuli.
Ruchir Arun’s Teen Tigada is a clever riff on the WFH business. A trio of thieves wheels a truckload of goods into an abandoned factory, where they are forced to wait until they get further orders from their boss. Stuck with each other and hating every second of it, Chandan (Saqib Saleem), Dimple (Ashish Verma) and Ajeet (Sam Mohan) claw at each other like crabs in a barrel.
It’s sluggish in parts and comprises uneven accents. Yet, the screenplay by Arun and Abhinandan Sridhar has some hilarious moments of absurdist comedy that is smoothly delivered by the actors.
Two episodes compete for attention. Nagraj Manjule’s Vaikunth confronts the pandemic’s wrenching death rate. Manjule himself plays Vikas, a crematorium worker who gives fire to a seemingly endless pile of bodies. Forced to bring his son to work and worried about his Covid-19 positive father, Vikas nevertheless carries out a job dictated by caste with near-mechanical efficiency.
It begins with an extended dialogue-free sequence, in which the main sounds are provided by bereaved family members. Writers Manjule and Sudhir Kulkarni, cinematographer Harshvardhan Waghdhare and editor Kutub Inamdar build up a hypnotic rhythm before opening out the story to Vikas’s worst fears. The climax is typical of Manjule, whose films Fandry and Sairat similarly end on powerful images that are hard to forget.
Vaikunth has strong competition from War Room. Ayappa KM’s excellent contribution is the only one in the anthology that is unafraid of the open ending offered by short films but all-too-frequently rejected by filmmakers.
The phone calls simply don’t stop at a government centre in Mumbai that is matching needy patients to hospital beds. One such phone call stops Sangeeta (Geetanjali Kulkarni) in her tracks. It’s from a figure from her past she didn’t need reminding of.
Shubham’s screenplay is packed with rich details – the shortage of pens, the power cut that interrupts the flow of information, the character portraits of Sangeeta’s neighbours (played by Rasika Agashe and Purnanand Wandhekar). Cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain casts a grey hue over the drab centre where Sangeeta faces a professional and moral dilemma.
One of the few actors who can emote from behind a mask, Geetanjali Kulkarni magnificently carries this slim and yet rich portrait of one of the countless aspects of the pandemic. It’s beautifully edited too, by Dipika Kalra.
The weakest film perhaps suffers from the strengths of the other episodes. Gond Ke Laddu, written and directed by Shikha Makan, brings together the housewife Susheela (Neena Kulkarni), delivery worker Rohan (Lakshvir Singh Saran) and his wife Geetha (Darshana Rajendran).
The best moment in the predictable plot emerges from Susheela’s fumbling attempts to use her phone to book a delivery slot. The chirpy tone is better suited to the first season of Unpaused. With the bar raised in the second round, a perfectly adequate short film finds the delivery of a feel-good message as tough as Rohan.