Caution: spoilers ahead.

The Hindi-language anthology film Unpaused on Amazon Prime Video comprises four stories set during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

Nitya Mehra’s Chand Mubarak examines the unusual friendship between a recluse (Ratna Pathak Shah) and an autorickshaw driver (Shardul Bhardwaj). Avinash Arun Dhaware’s Vishanoo stars Abhishek Banerjee, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, and Pallas Prajapati as a family that squats in an upscale apartment in an under-construction high rise.

Unpaused (2020).

Coincidentally, both entries feature talent from the acclaimed 2019 film Eeb Allay Ooo!. Mehra and Dhaware spoke to about their respective short films.

Nitya Mehra on ‘Chand Mubarak’

“I was very clear that I did not want to make a regular pandemic or lockdown film, about how people are coping or staying in. I also felt that people aren’t able to really articulate what they are feeling now. It’s too early. Maybe after it’s all over in three-four years, they will be able to talk about this time.

So I wanted to make a film that was over and beyond the pandemic. I wanted to make something on unlikely friendships. Even keeping the pandemic aside, everyone has very insular lives in cities. You clean your apartment but don’t care about the garbage outside. Everyone or every group judges the other.

But if we just let someone into our life, for a second, and start a conversation, you will find some common ground. Letting someone into your life will open it up a bit more. This loneliness of cities interested me.

At the beginning, we did not know what kind of movie we wanted to make. My writers [Tarun Dudeja, Vidur Nauriyal] and I worked from our respective locations on a story each till we zeroed in on the story of the auto driver.

Even pre-pandemic, we did not trust someone else from a different social structure. Covid made it worse. I picked up on that – what does it mean to trust again?

Shardul Bhardwaj in Unpaused. Courtesy Amazon Prime Video.

In fact, I chose Shardul Bharadwaj based on just a phone call. I had seen the trailer of Eeb Allay Ooo! I liked it and reached out. We connected so well. I spoke to him about the story, and his politics of life just hit home. Something told me he’s the guy. Also, the same set of actors move between OTT platforms, so I was excited by someone new.

I was also interested in how we are a result of where we come from, where we are born, the difficulties inherent in our social structures, all of which colour our ideas of a full life. A spinster and a married person sees the world differently.

Then there are notions: a spinster is a certain way, they enter a room with eight family members, three children, that must be noise to them. For a married person with a family, someone thinks, ah, poor thing, how do they actually find happiness?

As a filmmaker, I did not want to judge. I let Uma and Riyaaz share their opinions of one another – like a glass half-full, half-empty thing.
Nitya Mehra. Courtesy International Kolkata Book Fair.

We shot in August, when there was rain, which we had to incorporate into the film later. I was very certain that I did not want to show typical Bombay – Marine Drive, VT. I wanted to keep the film within the rickshaw. The story wouldn’t work in any other vehicle.

The silence the lockdown provided enabled Uma and Riyaaz to connect. So much noise in a city makes us insular in the first place.

It’s a huge insecurity for a filmmaker to deal with a person or territory you are not familiar with. I don’t have the life of Riyaaz, although I know Uma. Then we work hard, do extensive research, to get things right. We form opinions of others from our apartments like Uma. It’s when we go out and meet people that we understand them.

When I was working with Ang Lee as an assistant, he pointed out that picking subjects he knows nothing about gives him the best scope for learning. So he makes a movie on hippie culture [Taking Woodstock], but then he makes Life of Pi.

Kho Gaye Hum Kahan, Baar Baar Dekho (2016).

With Chand Mubarak, I wanted to make the simplest film, let the characters’ genuineness speak, not let my voice or camera distract. It was the same with my feature film, Baar Baar Dekho, which had a simple idea of how we ought to live in the present.

But it came in a high concept, and that was, perhaps, overambitious for a debut feature. I made it with as much heart as I did Chand Mubarak. Why it didn’t work is something I can only understand and say a few years later.”

Avinash Arun Dhaware on ‘Vishanoo’

“The idea came to me when I arrived in Mumbai for the first time, while studying at FTII [Film and Television Institute of India]. I had never seen such tall buildings before in my life. I was drawn to the lives of their makers, the labourers, who could be kids, adults, or even extremely old people.

These people create these buildings but never get to live in them. Money in exchange for work is important, but there should also be some kind of satisfaction and spiritual growth that comes. But here, nothing like that is happening, and that feeling haunted me.

This idea was originally a dark one, which I will keep to myself for now. Based on this initial idea, Shubham [Eeb Allay Ooo! writer] wrote the story and script.

Usually, with pandemic-themed material, the demand is to end on a happy or positive note. But I insisted that this is what I want to make because I kept questioning why whenever a calamity happens, only one class of people suffer the most. We have progressed so much technologically, but the state of a certain class remains the same.

Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in Unpaused. Courtesy Amazon Prime Video.

The story is simple. It doesn’t have any message as such, what is important is the feeling that is evoked on seeing this story, do you feel for these characters, what questions are created, because this is how life is. It’s about the moments rather than something particular.

I know people will compare this to [South Korean film] Parasite. Class divide is an universal theme, and such films have been made before Parasite. A film which stayed with me when I watched it as a kid was the Marathi film Aayatya Gharat Gharoba.

In it, a well-to-do family leaves their mansion during a vacation, and a man from outside comes and stays there. From that, I understood what aspiration for wealth means, that everyone dreams of experiencing wealth.
Avinash Arun Dhaware. Courtesy Shanker Raman.

Most of the film is shot indoors. With directing drama, what I do is consult the actors regarding where they want to sit, stand, how they want to perform, and then they figure out what to do and where to do it during the rehearsal. That is when I figure where to place the camera.

The camera catches a lot, so if the intention is to capture truth on camera, less is more. If you add too many elements, the story might go somewhere else.

Action has to be done differently. You need to prepare well in advance, like we did in Paatal Lok. It was different from Killa, yes, but I grew up with both Guru Dutt and Guddu Dhanoa. If you have conviction in a project, the story touches you, and the truth of the writer, the filmmaker, and the actor are in sync, then that is all that’s needed. The question with Paatal Lok was it’s so well-written, can we translate it just as well to screen?

Paatal Lok had so many lovely scenes, I can’t pick any one in particular to talk about. I’ll mention my experience with the elder Cheeni [played by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh].

Mairembam Ronaldo Singh in Paatal Lok (2020). Courtesy Clean Slate Filmz/Amazon Prime Video.

The first scene we shot was the climax. [Cheeni’s childhood friend and lover] Kali walks up to her, they talk, and she cries. The way she performed, I started crying. I felt the truth of what she felt. That reached my heart. Such moments happen automatically if you work with a clean heart.

It rarely happens that a film reaches the heart but not the head, but a film often reaches the head but not the heart. With films about marginalised or underprivileged characters like Vishanoo, if something isn’t working, the audience isn’t finding truth in the moment. Sometimes you think you have reached truth, but someone else doesn’t. I try to be honest at every turn, and I hope it reaches the audience.

(As told to Devarsi Ghosh).