It’s finally here — lockdown-produced quarantine content. Netflix India’s latest project, Home Stories, was produced during the lockdown, with cast and crew supposedly having adhered to social distancing and Covid safety guidelines.
The 45-minute anthology film, comprising four short stories, sparks hope of what the immediate future of cinema and television could look like — potentially a lot of do-it-at-home and do-it-yourself. This comes as a breather especially at a time when there is so much anxiety in the entertainment industry around the indefinite postponement of film releases and production schedules.
After Netflix’s previous innings with the short film anthologies Lust Stories and Ghost Stories, Home Stories, which was only released on Netflix India’s YouTube page, seeks to create a tableau of what life during the Covid-19 lockdown looks like for some.
Home Stories’ first two segments capture the experience of middle-class Indians who suddenly find themselves confined to their apartments — a man with anxiety disorder wrestling with cabin fever even before the lockdown forced him to stay home, and a boy who wakes up in a girl’s house after a one-night stand to find out that a three-week nationwide lockdown has been declared and is pushed into a forced familiarity with his new roommate. The other two segments delve into the palpable shift in social dynamics we are collectively witnessing — a cheery food delivery professional navigates the new normal of customers who approach “strangers” with paranoia and animosity, and a family coming to terms with the chaotic but endearing new phenomenon of Zoom weddings.
One optimistic review noted that thanks to this lockdown anthology, Netflix’s future is looking bright — “Quite early into lockdown, directors began making short films at home and the results are pretty darn impressive”. Whether the movie itself is so bright is up for debate.
Home Stories is average at best, and mediocrity shouldn’t get a pass just because of the lockdown. If web series, indies, and short films have taught us anything, it is that you don’t require never-ending resources and huge production to be able to tell a good story with heart. But Home Stories is noteworthy as one of hopefully many efforts to document the specificities of this current moment.
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Netflix-ing, now a general verb for watching content on the plethora of available OTT platforms, has become a more serious task than ever before. The endless curated lists of web series and movies to help you get through quarantine prove this. But for many, their chosen form of entertainment also must reflect to some extent the current times we are living in.
This explains the spurt in reported viewing of Hollywood movies such as Contagion or Virus. Indian movies, too, can address this need — you have movies set around the backdrop of plague, like Dharmendra and Meena Kumari’s 1966 film Phool Aur Patthar, or Gulzar’s 1975 film Khushboo. Then there are biological warfare thrillers, be it the Ajay Devgn-starrer 2003 thriller Qayamat: City Under, or the 2011 film Azaan, starring Sachin Joshi. Netflix’s more recent House Arrest (2019), follows the protagonist, played by Ali Fazal, who refuses to leave his apartment, but relentlessly cooks, cleans, and becomes a domestic powerhouse to entertain himself in isolation.
Apart from recycling and rewatching older content, there is a steady stream of new releases of even big title films, which has led to a separate debate about the future of cinema halls, and whether films should skip theatrical releases in this climate. Amitabh Bachchan’s Gulabo Sitabo on Amazon Prime Video and Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh are examples of this new trend of digital releases.
A reflection of the time
But projects that are in direct dialogue with the various facets of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on us have a special resonance. For instance, Nandita Das’ short film Listen to Her explored the surge of domestic violence complaints that various helplines were receiving since the start of the lockdown. The seven-minute short film features Das in her living room with her son in the backdrop — one camera, one ‘set’, minimal production — but made a powerful statement. “This pandemic has taught us that our lives are deeply intertwined, and we must respond to the issues around us,” she wrote in the description of the film.
Influencers and social media content creators have always been pros at do-it-from-home projects, but comedians such as Danish Sait and Kusha Kapila are particularly killing the game right now through irreverent humour and satirical sketches.
It’s safe to imagine that for a while, writers and producers will find it difficult to work on any new material that is non-Covid related. “How can characters, even highly fictionalized ones, exist in a world where the lived experience of billions isn’t referred to at all?” wrote Margaret Heidenry in Vanity Fair. Addressing the challenge of writing about an ongoing experience that has no end in sight, a writer asked Heidenry, “What do you write when you don’t know how it’s going to turn out?”
Not addressing the pandemic, even in a tangential way, would not only be a wasted opportunity but a disservice to audiences. Journalists have been doing the work of bringing to the fore myriad human experiences during the global pandemic, it’s time for the entertainment industry to do so too. Even if these stories are told from our homes, for now.
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