As all of us begin to look at ways to negotiate life in the uncertain lane, the pinprick of anxiety grapples with the jab of hope. And yet, there’s a cloud that hovers, breaking that pinhole of agitated particles struggling to reach our lives and light it up. Amidst this dystopian hide-and-seek comes Amazon Prime with its-latest-in-its-anthology quiver, the five-storied Unpaused. The timing of its streaming, coming as it does on the cusp of year-end holidays, couldn’t have been better. And yet, what does this holiday period—for those of us lucky enough to avail of it—mean? Is it just another milestone we pass, mostly low and grumpy, much like we did earlier during Valentine’s Day?
In writer Reshu Nath and director duo Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru’s opening act, The Glitch, a look into a world that’s whizzed past multiple Covid iterations, the lover’s Cupid day has been binned by the government, and all that exists now is a tasteless, odorless, augmented dating system. Taking sly digs at all that’s troubling about the political dispensation, Raj-D.K. get a cracker opening with Ahan (Gulshan Devaiah) meeting Alisha (Saiyami Kher) in a bar. The bar signage is typical Raj-D.K. humor, as is the blind date tête-à-tête that ends rather abruptly. Devaiah, who turned self-deprecation into fine art with the riotous series Afsos, sparkles with the same self-doubt that Amol Palekar did in his middle-class, fidgety outings in the 70s. He’s the highlight here, even as Kher brings in a vulnerability that’s twinned by a largely unseen grit. Even if the energy flags a bit, the directors score when they show what it is to be a new-gen, trauma-induced hypochondriac. Falling in love in the best of times isn’t a cakewalk. But when you’re a hypo serenading your love warrior with sign language, talking to your AI-powered bot can feel like a hug and online certifications a blanket of inane warmth. If there’s anything that can truly overcome biting loneliness, it’s face-to-face interaction.
That initial thread of despondency streaks into the next segment (The Apartment) that’s also the weakest amongst all. This, despite a magnificent performance by Richa Chadda, playing an upper class, wronged wife and firebrand media entrepreneur. And that’s because with writer Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh director Nikkhil Advani seems to force the pandemic canvas—and their undisguised disdain for the Indian Prime Minister’s call to honor the people at the forefront of the pandemic by banging plates and clapping—on to a fractured marriage. That fracture, in turn, makes Chadda’s character of dought into one wracked by self-doubt, leading her to tie the knot. Across her neck, from a fan. Raging at her husband’s blazing indiscretions (Sumeet Vyas plays the hubby), she drowns herself in some good-looking whiskey and ciggies and then decides to tie the aforesaid knot. Until a knock on the door by a pestilent lower floor neighbor (Ishwak Singh, likable, but also handed a character that looks more smug than concerned) and forced conversations lead to an astounding moment of self-discovery and strength for her. If it all sounds trite, it’s because it is.
Fortunately, Devika Bhagat’s story, Rat-A-Tat, directed by Tannishta Chaterjee, is more natural, looking at the fractured lens of isolation that most of us are destined for, one way and some time or the other. That such solo life tracks are usually self-inflicted is what Archana (Lillette Dubey) and Priyanka (Rinku Rajguru) discover in an old-Bombay-styled apartment that’s got some stunning nursery designs and greenery. As the young and not-so-young ladies cohabit, they unpack their personal baggage to reveal a mutual trauma of experiencing loss—losing out what you love doing and losing the one you love. Both the actors lend an air of casual mist to their acts, making this simplistic story stick, albeit a bit shakily.
Vishaanu (Virus) is perhaps the most troubling of them all. It’s also the most paradoxical in its irony. Looking at the devastation the pandemic and the sudden lockdown wreaked on migrant labor across India, the story ushers you into a crippling economic anachronism that the majority of the country lives in and lives out. Construction worker and painter Manish (a terrific Abhishek Banerjee) wants to return to his town Bhagwada in the state of Rajasthan with his wife Seema (Geetika Vidhya Olhan) and son Monu (Pallas Prajapati) and has to shell out big money for the operation. With nowhere to go in the meantime, the family’s hush-hush holed up in the model (or sample) apartment in the building under construction where Manish was working before the lockdown. (Watch out for a superb cameo by Hemant Kher, last seen in the terrific Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story.)
It is this irony—workers creating plush living places that they can never be part of—that plays out to stunning effect, especially when Seema lives out a spa fantasy in the apartment. A brief, suspended animation of reality before it all goes down the drain. Olhan is in stunning form, gripping you by the collar in every frame she’s in. And the darkest irony that writer Shubham and director Avinash Arun Dhaware roll your way? There may not be enough currency in worn-out wallets, but there’s more than enough data tangoing around on cell phones.
But the best in Unpaused is reserved for the last. Director Nitya Mehra, writing with Vidur Nauriyal and Tarun Dudeja, rides out a predictable yet warm story of middle-aged, well to do loner Uma (Ratna Pathak Shah) who eats canned food for sustenance and consumes cable TV for company, and suffers from a stiff upper lip (that requires no medication) and a stiff upper neck (that does). That she finally loosens up a bit from the clutches of both malaises is thanks to autorickshaw driver Rafique (Shardul Bharadwaj) whose vehicle she lands up in thanks to the lockdown and a conscientious Mumbai cop (Satish Naikodi). As Uma begins to rely on Rafique for errands—a beautiful, symbiotic, and organic relationship that forms the crux of transport relief for so many in Maximum City—the veil of class begins to slip away. Rafique’s given to banter and doling out unsolicited—but well-meaning—advice, Uma’s façade is stony silences and spondylosis-triggered grimaces, and they slowly get around to sharing their pain and celebrations. Both actors are terrific—Ratna Pathak Shah makes you go “Ouch” every time the rickshaw rattles and shakes, while her frozen countenance hides solidified emotional pain. Bharadwaj is tops, his performance heart-warming, natural, and melting defenses. If Chand Mubarak (Have a Blessed Night of the New Moon) doesn’t make you misty-eyed and hug yourself, I don’t know what will this year.
Unpaused, then, is a mixed bag of stories with a similar effect in the way they play out. It’s uneven, but it works. Much like our lives at all times, but more so now, it soars in parts, crashes in others, and yet is connected by a worn-out string of heartbreaking loneliness.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Unpaused is streaming on Amazon Prime and is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for language and drinking.
Directors Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K., Nikkhil Advani, Tannishta Chaterjee, Avinash Arun Dhaware , Nitya Mehra
Time 1h 53min
Writers Reshu Nath, Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh, Shubham, Vidur Nauriyal, Tarun Dudeja
Stars Gulshan Devaiah, Saiyyami Kher, Richa Chadda, Sumeet Vyas, Ishwak Singh, Lillette Dubey, Rinku Rajguru, Abhishek Banerjee, Geetika Vidhya Olhan, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shardul Bharadwaj
Genres Drama, Romance