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Back to the Future Pandemic: Amazon’s ‘Unpaused’ is a Collage of Steeped-in-Reality Slice-of-life Tales

Back to the Future Pandemic: Amazon’s ‘Unpaused’ is a Collage of Steeped-in-Reality Slice-of-life Tales

  • An anthology of short films that explore the human experience amid the coronavirus pandemic, is a must-watch.

With Covid-19 being the leading star of this year, “Unpaused,” Amazon Prime Video’s latest release, an anthology of short films that explore the human experience amid the coronavirus pandemic is a must-watch. 

The quirky, funny, steeped-in-reality slice-of-life tales, all dwell on some common themes — loneliness, love and hope – and filmed during the ongoing pandemic, features five different segments by Raj & DK, Nikkhil Advani, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Avinash Arun, and Nitya Mehra.

Each story, set during the lockdown has a common thread. While a few attempts at delving deep into the irreparable suffering of people amidst this global crisis, the others are stories of hope. A polite reminder, to restore our faith in humanity. To remind us all that when we are all helpless and in need, a stranger might show up, risking their life to deliver groceries, or save us from our (inner) demons.

The anthology begins with Raj & DK’s dystopian “Glitch,” about a brilliant, enigmatic scientist, Saiyami Kher, who is struggling to help humanity by finding a vaccine for Covid-30, and falls in love on a virtual blind date with a lonely hypochondriac (Gulshan Devaiah), a software engineer, who has come to dread all human contact, and has managed to stay alive in the face of the surging pandemic.

Saiyami Kher and Gulshan Devaiah — both fine actors — bring the characters expertly to life in this piece that might have been depressing in the hands of another team. Instead it is thoughtful, zany and funny, handled brilliantly by the men who wrote and produced the hilarious and equally thoughtful ‘Stree’ and directed arguably one of the best Hindi films of this century, ‘Shor In The City.’

The story, set in 2030, tries to imagine our lives during a prolonged pandemic, where every other human is craving human contact and companionship. Devaiah is charming as the stressed out ‘hypo’, who learns sign language for love. Devaiah also has perfect comic timing and provides the much-needed chuckle in a disturbing scenario. Kher is brilliant in her portrayal of the warrior scientist struggling with the failure of human trials of a possible vaccine and falling in love with an unlikely partner.

The story leaves you with a pause-for-thought with its tag line — “How long does it take to fall in love at first sight?” About the same time it takes one to catch a virus!

“The Apartment,” the second in the anthology, has a slightly different tone from the rest. The storyline is not dependent on the infectious outbreak, and the screenplay by Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh tackles the difficult depiction of mental health against the backdrop of the pandemic.

Richa Chadha is inspiring as she takes us on an uncomfortable emotional ride. She gives an uncomfortable glimpse and understanding into the world of depression, as she grapples with her own guilt.

Richa Chadha, who plays Devika, is the wife of a celebrated journalist, portrayed by a sincere Sumit Vyas. She suffers from depression and anxiety. At the onset of lockdown, Devika’s world implodes after sexual assault allegations are hurled at her husband in a post #MeToo world. Devika struggling to keep her life and sanity together, contemplates ending it all with a symbolic “lal dupatta” around her neck. But when a knock on her door stops her in her tracks, she finds an unlikely rescuer in a yoga-loving, talkative neighbor, played by the cute-boy-next-door, Ishwak Singh.

Richa Chadha in “The Apartment.”

Richa Chadha is inspiring as she takes us on an uncomfortable emotional ride. She gives an uncomfortable glimpse and understanding into the world of depression, as she grapples with her own guilt. Vyas as the belligerent, accusation-denying, husband delivers a competent, although somewhat predictable portrayal.

The screenplay by Devika Bhagat in RAT-A-TAT a notch above the rest with its fine performances by Lillete Dubey and Rinku Rajguru. The storyline is simple and nothing to write home about – a 65-year-old single cantankerous lady, who is easily annoyed, reluctantly helps a young, broke girl, living as a tenant in the same building. An unfortunate encounter with a rat brings the two of them together. It is the stellar acting by Rinku Rajguru as Priyanka that lights up the screen and complements the still elegant and skilled actress, Lillete Dubey admirably, and makes this ordinary story, not-so ordinary. 

Even when she is wearing a mask, Rinku’s Kohl-lined eyes emote all that she is feeling. While the story sees a sudden jump to the conclusion rather strangely, there are moments of subtlety which one can appreciate, such as when Rajguru’s character retorts in a scene, “So what I don’t speak Hindi, the rest of India also doesn’t speak Marathi, right?” 

In an emotionally charged “Vishaanu,” a versatile Abhishek Banerjee coming off his recent hit “Paatal Lok” and Geetika Ohlyan (“Soni and Thappad” fame) portray rare humanity and warmth, showcasing the plight of migrant workers in Mumbai during the lockdown. Brilliantly essayed by them, the two shine with their subtlety in their scenes. 

The story, written by Shubham, is one of the finest — not necessarily because of the moving theme — but because of its execution. There is not one moment in the plotline that seems rushed, or out of place. There are elements of fun, truth and hopelessness, fitting together perfectly. For example, while stopped by a relief convoy, Ohlyan, tucking away food packets for her starving family, holed up inside a plush ‘sample flat’ for weeks, gives a soundbite to relief workers calmly, “Jo sehar roti deta hain woh acha hai,” (the city that gives us food is good)  — bringing home the plight

The best is definitely left for last.  In a moving “Chaand Mubarak,” a single affluent, middle-aged woman, Uma (Ratna Pathak Shah), masked, gloved and constantly sanitizing is driven around the city by a young, handkerchief-wearing, roja-keeping rickshaw driver Riyaz (Shardul Bharadwaj). She’s hesitant about getting into the auto at first at first, due to a fear of catching Covid, and also distrustful of him, but soon Bharadwaj wins her over with his helpful nature, sensitivity and honesty. She soon starts calling him up on a regular basis and relying on him to ferry her to and from the pharmacy (a regular destination due to her ill-health) and even do her grocery. They strike up an unusual friendship. He tells her how much he misses his two daughters, left behind in his hometown, informing her that he was about to go back home when the pandemic struck and the world changed – poignantly reminding us all of that moment. 

Uma, in turn, informs him matter-of-factly that she isn’t married, doesn’t have children and chose independence over domestic subservience. However, we get a glimpse of her loneliness when she mentions how much she misses her deceased twin sibling and in her exquisitely decorated apartment that she lets herself into alone every night, eating her dinner alone from a dabba

As they slowly overcome their preconceived notions about each other, they realize that they are not so different after all – both lonely in the city of dreams.

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Their conversations teach us the most striking lesson during the pandemic — that friendship and trust grows while working through a crisis together, no matter how unorthodox it may seem and the importance of relationships in one’s life.

The storyline, which filmmaker Nitya Mehra (who co-directed the hugely popular series “Made In Heaven”) co-wrote with Vidur Nauriyal and Tarun Dudeja, fills your heart with warmth and promise of a better, more trusting tomorrow. Both Bharadwaj and Shah are exquisite in their subtle, nuanced and impressive performances. Beautifully performed by the stalwart Pathak Shah and a very capable Bharadwaj, and evocatively filmed by Jay Oza, the screenplay earns a much-deserved ovation for its life-affirming message at the end.

“Unpaused,” while looking ahead with hope, also gives us a glimpse back to the start of the pandemic. For example, a cop turns down a minor complaint citing Covid overload or when the migrant couple, having lost their house and jobs, are seen running from pillar to post, gathering money to flee the city.  There are also multiple instances where people are sown banging utensils in answer to Modi’s call to ward of the evil spirit – Corona.

The issue of suicide, a saddening outcome of the pandemic lockdown and isolation, turns up not just in “The Apartment” but also in “Glitch,” with Kher’s vaccine scientist persona telling her beau that many of her disheartened colleagues have been driven to end their lives. Occasionally, like in “The Apartment,” the tone gets overly preachy. Mostly, though, the writing stays sharp. But there’s another, more nostalgic and despondent kind of looking back that “Unpaused” also touches on. When Abhishek tells a man he’s from Bagwara, Rajasthan, his faltering voice reveals his fear of never returning there, highlighting the plight of so many migrant workers from Rajasthan that had been splayed all over the media during the early days of the pandemic. The idea that maybe none of them will ever get to go home lingering in Abhishek’s longing conversations about his hometown. 

The film looks forward to happier, better times, but also stops to pay homage to what was lost.

Throughout the film, the important message of mask wearing is also brought home to audiences when migrant worker Ohlyan is handed masks by relief workers, reminding her to make sure she and her family wear it, or when Uma reminds an errant cop to wear his mask properly. Lillete Dubey also reminds one of the correct etiquette of donning a mask, when she rebukes Rajguru and tells her a mask should be worn over the nose and not under her chin saying “mask dadhi ke liye nahin hota hain….” (mask is not for the beard).

Also, worth a mention, is the underlying musical score throughout the anthology.

A poignant must-see during these Covid times, “Unpaused” is streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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