January 31, 2021 7:10:14 pm
The past year did not end as much as it was ending. Steeped in a crisis that continues to rage, it unfolded like pages of a dystopian novel where the paranoia of a climactic collapse overtook luxury of any foreshadowing. Suddenly, everyone across the world was tethered to a reality that seemed incredulously remote and frighteningly close. As if at long last all were equal, if only in their fears. It is this ubiquity of horror and deathly wait for an end that makes Arati Kadav’s 55 km/sec — a short film anticipating the destruction of the world due to an incoming meteor — straight out of the times we are inhabiting.
Art draws from life, adapts it. It also re-frames existence, transforming occurrences into stories and circumstances into plot points. Art then is associated with excess. But when reality is unprecedented and disproportionate, art ceases to be just about representation. Instead, it becomes a site of possibilities. In the last year alone, pandemic and the unique danger it posed, served as a premise for multiple creative outings.
In the lockdown thriller The Gone Game (streaming on Voot), imperative isolation and initial constrictions are weaponised to showcase the ease with which preventive measures, in place to protect us, can be manipulated to fake death if need be. In Unpaused (streaming on Amazon Prime), pandemic-ridden disruption is fleshed out across five segments by different directors. They touch upon a host of issues, all stemming from the present halt we are participants of. One envisions a futuristic world where living with the virus leaks into the way people date, going as far as to suggest virtual meetups as the way out. And more than one emphasises on the parallel reality lockdown inadvertently led to: migrant crisis. But both series identify the pervasive crisis as a hindrance to the way of life, an inconvenience. The creativity then, is reflected in what they make out of that obstacle.
Kadav seemingly roots her film in this territory, choosing her characteristic sci-fi genre as the medium. It is not a virus but a meteor coming towards the earth for 25 days which withholds the possibility of a complete collapse. Its effects are cataclysmic: the shock will kill people and those surviving will perish from the consequences. Even though the threat differs, the results are strikingly similar: equality of dread counterpoised by inequality of access. Those privileged will be staying in space stations, news anchors inform. Government has created bunkers for the common people but there are too few and some are already crumbling. 55 km/sec then is a succinct critique on the present rampant capitalisation of misery, inefficiency of the government and widening chasm between the have(s) and have-not(s).
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But the short in its 23-minute runtime also looks where other lockdown dramas failed to. Through it, Kadav trains her lens beyond the affluent and afflicted, to those sitting quietly in their rooms long before the staying in was a necessity. She looks at loners who, so used-to not drawing attention to themselves, were overlooked by those telling stories of the pandemic as well. She represents them.
At the core, 55 km/sec is an uneven love story where an introverted boy (Suraj) finally musters courage to confess his feelings to his erstwhile college mate over a Zoom call. As a final goodbye, a group of ten friends come together to share their last thoughts, seconds before the complete collapse (Kadav, too, makes an appearance). Suraj (Mrinal Dutt) is one of them, so is Srishti (Richa Chadha), the woman he loved and who is now married with a kid. The admission comes out of desperation, of letting her finally know, now since there can be no consequences. But it is their phone conversation later (the meteor collision time was miscalculated) that stayed with me.
When asked if he is scared, Suraj answers he isn’t. Being a recluse, he never felt connected with anybody else. Ironically it was the prospect of being confronted with a similar threat, of dying with everybody that gave him a sense of togetherness. And this remains my biggest takeaway from Kadav’s short — its acknowledgement of perpetual loners who find a sense of acceptance in the unlikeliest of situations. It underlines that despite the hazard it entailed, the common catastrophe enabled some to truly belong, if for the first and last time.
So much of the lockdown has been about the way it curbed mobility and upended possibilities of meetings. So much of its depiction has been about the inconvenience it posed. But for many who have been lonely, this also became a strange time when for once they felt together in their loneliness. In Olivia Laing’s exquisite The Lonely City where the author viscerally describes urban loneliness with all its shame and embarrassment, the feeling of being alone is captured in a gut-wrenching line: “What does it feel to be lonely?” she asks, and then answers, “It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” If there is one perverse silver lining to these horrific times it is this: the ravaging hunger is now shared, and for some, this is the closest they have come to feeling satiated.
(55 km/sec is streaming on Disney + Hotstar)
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