The hair has been trimmed. The beard has vanished. But the memory of shooting a film in a crematorium and playing a worker who gives flame to bodies is unlikely to go away in a hurry, Nagraj Manjule says.

Manjule’s Vaikunth is one of five episodes in Amazon Prime Video’s coronavirus pandemic-themed Unpaused: Naya Safar. It is also one of its most memorable. Manjule directs the episode and also acts as Vikas, a worker at a crematorium that is struggling to cope with Covid-19 deaths.

For several dialogue-free minutes, Vikas takes tightly wrapped bodies off gurneys, sets them on fire and bears silent witness to the sobs and wails of relatives. As the pile of ash from the cremated bodies rises – a measure of the pandemic’s grim toll – we learn that Vikas too is affected by the pandemic.

He is forced to bring his son Avinash (Arjun Karche) to the facility and worries about his father (Hanumant Bhandari), who is ailing from Covid-19 at a government hospital – the same one that frequently sends over corpses to the crematorium.

Unpaused: Naya Safar (2022). Courtesy Amazon Prime Video.

“It was hot, very hot,” Manjule remembers of the shoot, which took place about three months ago. “The smoke, the heat, the labour involved, all got to me. I got boils in my eyes during the shoot.”

More affecting than the physical aspect was the emotional experience of participating in what Manjule called an “imitation of life” – an attempt to capture the trauma of the high death rate caused by the pandemic, the fictionalistion of very real grief.

“The shoot was very traumatic, depressing even,” Manjule told “I felt like I was trapped. I couldn’t wait to finish the shoot and get out of there.”

Vaikunth was filmed at a crematorium on the outskirts of Mumbai. Art director Sheshraj Manjule build a kind of extension at the location so that the shoot could go on without disturbing the facility’s functioning.

“We would hang around at the crematorium and eat our meals there,” Manjule said. Although props were used to represent corpses, Manjule soon felt that he was burning actual bodies.

“All of us were affected – the sadness entered us too,” he said. “What you write about within the four walls of your home does change when you are actually on the shoot. But your writing should have the essence of what you want to say.”

Unpaused: Naya Safar (2022). Courtesy Amazon Prime Video.

When Amazon India approached Manjule to be one of the five directors for Unpaused: Naya Safar, he cautioned them by saying, you know the kind of films I make. He was told, that’s why we want you to be a part of the second season.

Initially, Manjule had not intended to act in his own film. The curly hair and long beard had been grown for another production in which he was appearing. When it came to casting for Vaikunth, his collaborators suggested that he should not only act in the film, but keep the same look.

“I am not hellbent about which actors I want to work with,” Manjule said. “I look for the actor who can best play the character. I like acting, but I am also a bit frightened by the process. My team members told me, you go ahead and play part yourself.”

Nagraj Manjule.

Manjule’s upcoming projects include a series on the Mumbai matka operator Ratan Khatri. The series, produced by Sidharth Roy Kapur, will be set between the 1960s and the 1990s.

His Hindi movie Jhund, starring Amitabh Bachchan as a football coach, was completed in 2019 but hasn’t been released yet. In between projects, in 2019, Manjule anchored Kon Honar Crorepati, the Marathi version of Kaun Banega Crorepati, hosted by Bachchan.

Vaikunth, which Manjule has co-written with Sudhir Kulkarni, contains many of the 43-year-old filmmaker’s trademark elements – unvarnished realism, a bottom-up exploration of inequity, characters on the margins of society, strongly cinematic moments. Manjule’s movies – Fandry, Sairat, the short films Pistulya and Pavsacha Nibandh – all deal with caste and class differences and are attuned to life’s harsh truths, but without rancour or shrillness.

Fandry (2014).

Fandry and Sairat explored the oppression and lack of manoeuvrability embedded in the caste system. Pistulya, Manjule’s debut from 2010, examined an impoverished boy’s desperate desire to go to school.

Pavsacha Nibandh, which is available on Zee5, is simmering with the quiet rage and irony that mark Manjule’s films: a boy at the bottom of the social ladder is asked to write an essay at school celebrating the beauty of the monsoon.

“I look at life in my own way,” Manjule said. “I try to bring out the shortcomings and flaws of life, and I hope I have done this in my new film too. I don’t want to be judgemental, but I want to express my opinion too, and that in itself can be taken as a form of judgement. My aim is to say something without forcing it on people.”

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