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‘Unpaused: Naya Safar’: Neena Kulkarni and director Shikha Makan on the upcoming anthology

The actor-director duo from ‘Gond Ke Laddu,’ one of the five short films in the Amazon Prime anthology, speak about their learning during the lockdown, the challenges they faced, and more

All trauma faced by humankind — the plagues and the wars — has been fictionalised and made immortal through art. The time of dread, as the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison puts it, “is precisely the time when artists go to work.”

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented event in the history of humankind, and artists, over the past two years, have found a way to merge these realities into art, ranging from poetry to novels to cinema.

The pandemic and the myriads of restrictions that accompany it might have been a difficult time for big-budget features, many of which have seen multiple postponements. However, this period has been a boon for short films and anthologies that have seen revivals on various streaming platforms.

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After being around for a while in Indian cinema — recall the likes of Bombay Talkies, Dus Kahaniyaan or even Love Sex Aur Dhokha — filmmakers are now tapping into the format of anthologies on a regular basis. Amazon Prime’s 2020 offering Unpaused was one such example that capitalised on the trend, also using COVID-19 as a common theme across its segments.

The project had four films that focused on a myriad of experiences during the lockdown; from the migrant crisis to digital dating. Now, the franchise is back with a sequel titled Unpaused: Naya Safar, featuring five new shorts.

Talking to The Hindu, Shikha Makan and Neena Kulkarni, the director-actor duo from one of the shorts Gond Ke Laddu (that also stars actors Darshana Rajendran and Lakshvir Singh Saran) speak about their learnings during the lockdown, working on an anthology, their hopes for the future and more.

Excerpts from an interview:

Over thel ast couple of years, we have seen a lot of anthologies on streaming platforms. What do you think about this sub-genre?

Shikha: It is a very interesting format because it is a short film that gives you the freedom to play with the craft aspect of storytelling, and also be able to make a point across. Anthologies, when pertaining to a theme, lend themselves to a great viewing experience. The sheer diversity of thought, ideas and expression are creatively very interesting to engage with, as a filmmaker. It also helps the audience make more choices.

Shikha Makan
 

Neena: I have done anthologies in feature films as well! There was a film that I’d done called Gandha (Fragrance) in Marathi, where the director Sachin Kuldalkar directed three films unrelated to each other, but carrying the same thing theme: the sense of smell. I know this genre; it is very interesting. It is like reading short stories, and is a wonderful opportunity for many people to come on board.

Shikha, in an anthology, there are multiple films and directors. Was there any discussion between the filmmakers to ensure a common theme is followed, while ensuring that each film is also distinct?

Shikha: The creative team at the platform undertakes this. There was no interaction with the other filmmakers. In fact, I don’t even know the themes of their films; I have just seen the trailer and am briefly aware of the title of their films. That’s good in a way because you get to collaborate with the OTT you are working with and the creatives there. At the same time, you have the liberty and the freedom to create what you want and not get influenced by what another team is creating.

Neena, what has the streaming era brought for you as an actor?

Neena: Oh lots, lots! I come from a time when there were only plays and films. Later, I saw television literally being born in front of me in India and I got into television myself. I have seen a lot of mediums, like daily soaps or short films, take shape and thrive. It is also very interesting for the actor to see a new medium because there are new challenges, new people to work with, and new ideas to be exchanged.

Neena Kulkarni in a still from ‘Gond Ke Laddu’

Neena Kulkarni in a still from ‘Gond Ke Laddu’
 

The pandemic has changed human lives as we know of it. How has the whole experience changed you as a person and as an artist?

Shikha: A writer is always influenced by the times he/she lives in. The pandemic is such a strong experience and so unprecedented for all of us. It has definitely shaped the way you look at the world, be it out of your own choice or not, as now you have to adapt to a certain kind of living.

There is also a technical aspect to it; the process of shooting films is different now, as you are taking precautions and constantly trying to be safe and keep others around you safe as well. Some people have had a smoother affair with the pandemic, others have had a very rough experience. All of these things on an emotional plane affects me as a person and my perspective.

Neena: Not only as an artist, but I think all of us have gone through an entire gamut of emotions and growth. Now I value what I do much more. Not that I valued it less before, but somewhere you took what was coming your way for granted. Now, whatever comes my way is extremely precious to me, not only because of my age, but because of the circumstances too. It has added value to everything that we have and everything that we do.

Shikha, when you are telling the story of a pandemic — an ongoing calamity —what are some of the challenges that you face?

Shikha: If you are compelled to tell a story because of the circumstances, then you are immersed in it as a filmmaker. It is a matter of perspective, what approach you take, how you are looking at the pandemic around you and also how it has affected you. Certain things influence you, and if you can portray that in a way that resonates with a lot of people, then that’s good. Human stories are stories that we are always seeking, whether they are tragic or light-hearted.

So, where did you get the inspiration for your short ‘Gond Ke Laddu’?

Shikha: There are two parts to this story. One is of this old mother who is living alone in a small town away from her daughter, and has this desire to send something special to her daughter. The other part of the story touches upon the realities of a delivery agent and his wife. Gond ke Laddu, in a way, joins these strangers and connects these stories with an unexpected twist in the tale, and leads you to a sweet surprise.

A still from ‘Gond Ke Laddu,’ part of Amazon Prime’s anthology ‘Unpaused: Naya Safar’

A still from ‘Gond Ke Laddu,’ part of Amazon Prime’s anthology ‘Unpaused: Naya Safar’
 

During the lockdown, it was very common for me and my friends to worry about our parents who were living away. In my family, food that is made at home holds a lot of value, especially when elders make pinni. At the same time, there were a lot of stories written about delivery agents, as they were at the frontline, serving people during the pandemic. I was interacting with them constantly, as they were the only people we all saw often outside our families.

And finally, Neena, are there any challenges that you want to face today, to challenge yourself as an actor?

Neena: I have never really looked out for something because things come to you. I don’t remember taking a break from acting. How can I take it now? Acting is a process and a journey and it is never fulfilled.

I have done multiple roles and I am very fortunate to have had a multitude of characters. I have acted in almost all genres; I don’t think anything is left! Now, it is about enjoying what comes my way and also being curious about why I have been chosen for this particular role over somebody else. There is a lot of competition even amongst senior actors, so you cannot be complacent. (smiles)

Unpaused: Naya Safar premieres January 21, 2022 on Amazon Prime

 

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