By Rachit Raj

Every story in Unpaused, the new anthology streaming on Amazon Prime, is grappling with an essential narrative conflict. How do you convey the chaos of a crisis we are still in the middle of, without making it something that is accessible not only for the now, but also works as a documentation of life during these strange times?

The answer is an easy one; the execution, tricky. Unpaused is by no means a perfect anthology. The pace is uneven, and some moments – and in extension some shorts – just don’t match the artistic and political gravitas of moments that truly achieve the posterity that artists aim for when touching upon an isolated experience in a communal rupture.

First is Raj & DK’s Glitch, set in a future where an advanced version of the virus is the rehearsed normal. A hypochondriac (Gulshan Devaiah) meets a “warrior” (Sayani Kher) on a virtual date. This is a world that is brightened on the face of it, but is as dark, and depressing as any dystopian image of a marred future. Yet, the tone here is quirky, not morose. This becomes the strength, as well as a weakness for the film.

Devaiah is brilliant as a hypochondriac here. He aces the role of an over-cautious man who is paranoid of the idea of catching the virus, like most of us were in the first leg of the lockdown. It is his unassuming comic timing that gives Glitch its best moments. But beyond a Her-like relationship (platonic, here) that he shares with an Alexa-like device, there is little more happening.

World-building is the first part of a story set in future, the next is using that world to tell a story. It is the latter bit that lacks in Glitch, making it watchable, and quite fun, to be honest, but simply not brilliant enough to stand out.

In The Platform, arguably the weakest film in the anthology, Nikhil Advani explores the loneliness of a crumbling relationship for Devika (Richa Chaddha), as her husband and business partner Sahil (Sumit Vyas) is accused of sexual misconduct by their employees. The story opens with Devika on the verge of attempting suicide, when a new, annoyingly chirpy neighbour (Ishwak Singh) intrudes, building a mild, moulded relationship with her that never feels strong enough for the climax.

While the idea is not a bad one, Advani fails to derive good performances from his actors. Chaddha, in a career spiral that is baffling and frustrating, continuous with her poor form, in urgent need of a reboot that would bring back the actress she was in her bolder, more dynamic years on screen. Singh plays a template, and he does little to do anything else, and Vyas plays the most interesting character with a strained limit to his screen presence.

Ultimately, The Platform does little to explore the period the film is set in. If anything, the pandemic serves more as an afterthought than a thematic presence, making for a mediocre short, and an even less intriguing part of such an anthology.

The third, Rat-a-tat, directed by Tannistha Chatterjee, and written by Devika Bhagat, is a story of an elderly woman, and a young, struggling artist, and the unlikely bond they create during the lockdown, all because of a pesky rat. This film, although unambitious, and in parts a little too convenient, does something that I wonder The Apartment aimed to do. It takes the Mumbai cliché of not knowing your neighbours, and puts the theory at test during the lockdown, when the city halted, making it easier for us to look inwards, and at people who are around us.

Lillete Dubey is especially charming to watch on screen after a while, while Rinku Rajguru gives a measured performance in a film that celebrates an unlikely friendship of two women, a dynamic rarely explored in Hindi cinema. Rat-a-tat does little as intelligent with its narrative as its title suggests it would, but it remains a simple, watchable affair. A harmless film that breathes more as an aftertaste than a memorable bite in hindsight.

Avinash Arun Dhaware directs the best short here. Vishanoo is the most political film, dealing with the crisis of labourers and their family. Starring the terrific duo of Abhishek Banerjee, and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan as a married couple with young boy, the film has a Parasite-esque sense of uplifting melancholy.

Residing in the posh apartment of their employer, after they have fled the city, the couple struggles to return home, and find enough food for survival. The film assumes a non-judgmental gaze at them, as it covers their journey of inevitable confrontation with reality, and an endless calamity of struggle, with no such moment that would provide a justifiable conclusion to their experience of life.

This struggle gets further elevated as it stands against previous representations of the pandemic through privileged gaze of people who had a home, and all the basic amenities during the pandemic. Written by Shubham, Vishanoo captures the most important, aching, and lasting story of the lockdown. It is the kind of story that is unafraid to touch upon the lives of people the government, and the populist media ignored for their benefit.

The last short, Chand Mubarak, directed by Nitya Mehra, we see an unlikely (albeit more natural than the bond in Rat-a-tat) bond between an elderly woman Uma (Ratna Pathak Shah), and a young Muslim rickshaw driver Rafiq (Shardul Bharadwaj). It a story of two people who are lonely in their own way – one, in absence of a family, and the other in the distance he has to live through with his family, during the pandemic.

Shah alone elevates the entire short here by giving a portrait of an aging woman that is unique, and enthralling. Here is a woman who is proud of her ideology, is independent, but also has a lonely, grieving side to her after a personal tragedy. She lends an olive branch, and finds a friend in Rafiq, who stands at an ideological, social, and economical opposite of her. Yet, their friendship is fresh and likeable, because it reflects at the importance of a friendship – a human touch – during the pandemic, even if it is with a rickshaw driver we never thought we would interact with in the past. It is the unbelievability of this relationship in a pre-pandemic world that gives it the right amount of authenticity in the time period it is set in, giving the anthology a sweet, soft end.

Overall, Unpaused is quite pause-able, and that is a shame because there are some genuine moments that work, here. The talent on show is exquisite, and in moments when the ability meets the outcome, the result is a resounding success. However, this is an anthology that gives us those moments sporadically.

[The anthology is streaming on Amazon Prime Video]

[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]