'Unpaused: Naya Safar': Moving portrayal of different shades of a pandemic afflicted society

The shorts in Unpaused: Naya Safar are united in zooming in on different strata of society, brought to a halt by the pandemic. It’s also a throw back to harshest of our memories from 2nd wave of Covid

'Unpaused: Naya Safar': Moving portrayal of different shades of a pandemic afflicted society

Namrata Joshi

Pardon me for making this personal but Nupur Asthana’s segment, The Couple, in the new Amazon web series, Unpaused: Naya Safar, is the first of the wonderful Indian “content”—as it is chosen to be described these days—that I have seen this year on streaming platforms. It’s as though Akriti aka Akku (Shreya Dhanwanthary) is me. And several like me, who had been turned into “lone wolves”, if you know what I mean, by seemingly upright but downright puny organisations and institutions, using the pandemic as a random excuse to downsize and render people obsolete, overnight.

Filtered from a distance of almost two years for me now, Akku’s disbelief, hurt, betrayal, the anger and the feeling of victimization remain relatable to the core, as is the manner in which she ends up using her husband Dippy (Priyanshu Painyuli) as the punching bag. His unwitting heartlessness on being needlessly pushed to a corner is just as real. It’s an inevitable emotional cycle to go through for an individual (and those close to her) to stay relevant for oneself and moving on from “just a bloody job”, rendering the organisation redundant in her own head.

Asthana lays bare the complexity of emotions with deft snapshots of the couple’s life, their conversations, arguments, flare ups and is fluid in her narration despite the confines of just a “two people in their Parel flat” universe. Little gestures and details—the burden of the huge rents in Mumbai, Akku cleaning the fridge or sorting the methi leaves—add up to a compelling sketch of her journey into resolving things.

Shreya and Priyanshu are effortless in bringing the written word to life, be it the care and concern for each other or the ego clashes. The work from home set up, their individual physical presence within it, the interplay with each other creates a dynamic that is unbelievably authentic. A most lived-in young couple if there was one.

Asthana frames it within the larger context of the economic, urban reality. The help’s salary slashed or denied entirely for the lockdown. The dispensability of employees in the cruel capitalist ventures. Most so, the millionaires turning billionaires by dodging taxes, and despite the economy tanking overall. Shreya articulates the righteous anger of the middle class against the “screwed up” world, with feeling and ferocity.

Asthana eventually rounds it off on a positive note. Just like Akku, for a lot of us, the pandemic has been all about discernment, about closing the negative presences and holding those who truly matter close to our hearts. That’s all that matters.

Like Akku, quest for justice also defines Sangeeta Waghmare (Geetanjali Kulkarni). A maths teacher working in the Mumbai COVID war room, in Ayappa KM’s segment War Room, she is propelled by a long-drawn battle that drives and motivates and frustrates and angers her. The moment of great churn and upheaval arrives when she must confront the ghosts of the past while doing her duty. Will her humanity win? Geetanjali, consummate as always, internalizes the conflict, and portrays the restlessness on screen from a deeply felt space, be it her torn face or the hunched shoulders or the intonation. She exemplifies the loneliness (and weariness) of a long-distance runner. Will a pen push her into a world of hope and light?

Just as in The Couple, the script also works largely within the closed world of the war room yet creates movement within it, sometimes with an ingenious device like a pen exchanging hands. But most so with the interactions of primarily three characters and the talented actors portraying them—Sangeeta, Vikrant (Purnanand Wandhekar) who is perennially fixing his glasses and the astrological signs-obsessed Gauri Kulkarni (Rasika Agashe). It might be a peripheral role, but Rasika is most memorable in the series for being an absolute hoot.

Ruchir Arun’s Teen Tigada also rests on the superb sparring between its characters/actors—Chandan (Saqib Saleem), Dimple (Ashish Saxena) and Ajeet (Sam Mohan), who have been gathered together by don Nalliswamy to dispose off his Rs 60 lakh worth of chori ka maal. They get held up with the goods in the warehouse when a total lockdown gets declared. Unable to get along yet forced into bonding with each other, they have to wait and watch for the clampdown to ease. All have a story—of pregnant wife back at home, issues with the father, love for samosa and more. And all are facing a sense of despair, of being stuck in life. Unfortunately, that is the case with the film as well. Off to a promising start, it is unable to charge forward with much force beyond a point. However, like Rasika in War Room, there is the noodle-disposing henchman Kuriakose played by Dilip Kumar, who instantly clicks despite a short sojourn on screen. May more such delightful characters flourish.

Shikha Makan’s Gond Ke Laddoo, like its title, proved to be too saccharine sweet and sentimental for my taste. What happens when a courier boy has an accident and is unable to deliver “maa ke haath ke bane laddoo” to her daughter? Makan is admirable in her focus on a courier company—the back-end operations, right down to the terrible supervisor, of an industry that kept things rolling for us during the lockdown. I wish there was more of that world in the short than the familiar maa ka pyaar trope.

The shorts in Unpaused: Naya Safar are united in zooming in on different strata of society, all brought to a halt by the pandemic. In all of them there is also a nod to the “bada aadmi” (the upper crust) who presumably may have managed to escape the ripple effects of the lockdown and the burden of his/her own crimes. He may have run but can he hide? In Teen Tigada there is disbelief that he could also be felled: “Par wo to bada aadmi tha (But he was an influential man)”, says Dimple. That sentiment segues in very well with the most powerful film of the lot—Nagraj Manjule’s Vaikunth.

Vaikunth is like a long, silent trek through a crematorium, broken by intermittent wails of grief. It’s the only place where things are not stuck despite the pandemic, in fact the devastation of death has ensured a relentlessness in turning human bodies to ashes and dust. Vikas Chavan (Manjule himself), the cremator, has no moment of respite, doing his job while eating, drinking and sanitizing hands. Meanwhile, the ashes of the dead pile up next to Shiva’s portrait.

“Yahan ameer aur gareeb ka bistar ek hi hota hai” (The bedding of both the rich and poor is the same here)”, reads a poster. Death is the great equalizer cutting across the divides of class, caste and religion and meting out ignominy and degradation to one and all. The indignity of bodies being piled up, ferried in carts one atop the other, some lying unclaimed by relatives, others performing the last rites of someone else’s father till they are directed to the half-burnt body of their own dearly departed, people unwilling to light the pyres of their loved ones, not touching the asthi kalash without spraying it with sanitizer. It’s a dystopic vision, a doom-filled world but also one which harbours a social standardization, even as discriminations continue in the real world where the disenfranchised are denied a little place of their own for shelter when COVID is raging on.

It’s also a throw back to the harshest of our collective memories from the second wave, which a bunch of us may have forgotten and moved on from. The film with its homage to Danish Siddiqui iconic pictures is then another visualization of sorts of Aamir Aziz’s powerful lines: “Yaad Rakha Jaayega”.

However, in Manjule’s urgent recreation of death and of life flowering in its shadow, two moments felt out of joint. The token nod to a Muslim boy and the last manipulative twist. Yes, despite the certainty of death, this world of ours is ultimately all about continuities. But the feel-goodness of the images clash with the new vision of hope in the pandemic reality. Hope that is tinged with melancholia.

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