Kalboisakhi, the unseasonal thundershowers in April in the East, is the only protagonist you see in the film; the human players are only voices on the phone. But more on it anon
Frankly, I want to hide under the table, because there will be a second Cyclone Amphan—of 'lockdown films' i.e. films made during the pandemic, with social distancing and all. Fortunately, I've seen two good lockdown shorts, Gautham Vasudev Menon's Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn (The Number Karthik Dialled; Tamil) and Amitabha Chaterji's Porijayi (Migratory; Bengali). And many have seen Family, Prasoon Pandey's #StayAtHome short, with all-India actors, fronted by Amitabh Bachchan.
Among the first off the block is the beautifully pensive Porijayi, a seven-minute short. Chaterji's Ami o Manohar (Manohar and I) was a brilliant debut film that won the FFSI KR Mohanan Award for best debut film at the International Film Festival of Kerala in 2018, when I was on its jury. Chaterji said he made Porijayi "in a day"—over 24 hours, during the lockdown. He wrote the script on April 23, shot the same night for an hour, and finished post-production on April 24. It's a relationship drama, with a couple seemingly at a dead end. Kalboisakhi, the unseasonal thundershowers in April in the East, is the only protagonist you see in the film; the human players are only voices on the phone. But more on it anon.
The more famous lockdown short is Gautham Vasudev Menon's Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn (KDSY), of 12 minutes, that dropped on YouTube on May 20. Also a relationship drama, it stars the elegant Trisha and STR/Silambarasan/'Simbu', shot in their respective locations on iPhones. Karthik, a filmmaker, has writer's block during lockdown, and calls his ex, Jessie. They split 10 years ago, she's married and has twins, and is settled in the US. Complaining how he has three films stuck during lockdown, he swiftly ups the ante to "I need your love," and pesters her to say "I love you Karthik." Completely disregarding her situation, he is obsessed with himself. Her assurances come dripping with disclaimers, "Just to fix things for you, I'll say 'I love you Karthik'," before delivering a Stinger missile: "I see you as my third child. It is love, but not what you think." Aiyyo! As if friend-zoning someone was not bad enough; here, she kid-zones him. The dialogues are finely observed; for Menon, here, love is a pacifier, as Karthik promptly goes back to writing. The film follows Menon's romantic hit Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (Will you cross the skies for me?, 2010) with the same cast playing the same characters, falling in love but parting, and again holds the promise of sequels.
Porijayi is the "purer" of the two films, with no stars, no onscreen actors, no music and just four shots: a stripped-down and distilled cinema. Chaterji takes lockdown limits to the extreme, even erasing actors Amrita Mukhopadhyay and Kinjal Nanda from the screen: we just overhear their phone conversation, while watching a thunderstorm. Similar to KDSY, the man needs to fall in love again, but she seems self-contained, needing nothing from him.
"Flamingos have returned to public beaches in Mumbai…because human communication has decreased. Our communication has decreased," she says, but he doesn't get it. The dialogues are brilliant; more metaphorical, more Bengali, if you know what I mean. In both films, with not much going on visually, other than protagonists, if even that, almost everything is in the dialogues. With 'lockdown films,' COVID-19's unexpected gift to the film industry could be our ability to treasure our scriptwriters and dialogue writers.
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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