Updated: July 1, 2020 3:58:40 pm
Before he can head out for the day, Prakash takes stock of the items he’s carefully laid out on his single mattress: face mask, hand sanitizer, and gloves. A cap completes the ensemble he will don for his job as a food delivery man. With the national lockdown forcing millions of Indians to hole up in their homes, overnight, delivery services were classified as essential services, and in Delivering Smiles, a new Netflix short film that premiered on YouTube, Prakash knows that he must rise to the occasion — so what if it’s a pandemic? And with every delivery, he signs off with a cheerful two-for-one message: “Have a nice day and have a nice life!”
“I think the lockdown has forced us to negotiate our relationship with the delivery man,” says Tanmay Dhanania, 34, who plays Prakash in the nearly-eight-minute short. “It’s a very classist exchange and I wanted to show the dignity of such labour because these people do care about their jobs and doing it well. One of the things that happens when we look at a character like Prakash from the outside, we stand in judgement of him. A lot of our films show the working class as one-dimensional characters; it’s social commentary from the top down that focuses only on poverty and despair. But that’s not how Prakash sees himself,” he says.
Delivering Smiles is part of an anthology of four shorts that form Home Stories, Netflix and YouTube’s first collaborative pandemic-special production in India; and the only one with a solo lead. By recording a day in his life during the lockdown, Prakash is fully in control — this is not a film about him, it is one he has created and starred in. “As part of workshopping this character, I made Tik Tok videos as Prakash. He’s a creative guy who is aware that he is filming this for an audience, that he has his own voice. That forced us to find a way to make it funny and genuine but without falling back on things like an accent,” says Dhanania, who interacted with delivery men while preparing for the role. “The class structure in India is such that this job is considered to be lowly. I’ve lost three projects because of the lockdown and I would consider working as a cab-driver or delivery man if I have to. Actors in the West have worked as part-time delivery people or bartenders or wait-staff, it’s acceptable there, but nearly unthinkable in India,” he says.
Directed by Tanvi Gandhi, conceptualised and written by Adhiraj Singh and Pulkit Arora, Delivering Smiles takes the viewer into Prakash’s life via his own cellphone. Dhanania ‘art directed’ his living room to resemble what Prakash’s room would look like, and embarked on a strangely liberating solo shooting experience. “I received two iPhone 11 phones, and the delivery guy’s kit. I never left my house or the building complex I stay at. Another actor wore a GoPro to shoot the outdoor scenes and the scenes were stitched together. I dubbed from home. We shot for a day and a half and the entire process took about a week,” he says. Having worked on his first quarantine project, Dhanania says that the anthology has ably demonstrated a new way to make films: a Do-It-Yourself process fuelled by remote operation and pure collaboration, without any suits in the room who dole out ‘input’ for the sake of it.
One of the most striking things about Delivering Smiles comes early on in the film: Prakash draws a smiley face on his mask before he goes to work. At a time when wearing a face mask has become mandatory by law, for perhaps the first time in our memory, we are experiencing a loss of language, of physical cues that facilitate our daily interactions with the world around us. Prakash’s hand-drawn smiley becomes a shorthand for the first level of communication between strangers, something that was taken for granted before the pandemic forced us to cover our faces.
Since its release on YouTube, Delivering Smiles is slowly gaining viewers and public appreciation: Dunzo, a delivery service, has promoted the film on its Instagram handle. “Personally for me, it was a commendation for the work we’ve done in this film. It gave Prakash more credibility,” says Dhanania. He is currently working on a play with his alma mater, The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and HOME, a Manchester-based theatre company. “They’ve commissioned me and my friend and fellow actor, Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas, to make a new online play. I think people will always need stories and they have to be told to take our collective humanity forward. Today, because of the pandemic, the medium has changed and as storytellers, we have to adapt to it,” says Dhanania.
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