There are no shortcuts to making great movies, says Anupama Chopra
Another week, another anthology. The latest is Ankahi Kahaniya, a three-film collection on Netflix India. The directors are Abhishek Chaubey, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, and Saket Chaudhary. The films are uneven, a descriptor that can be applied to most of the anthologies released on streaming platforms in the last 18 months.
Think of the ambitious nine-film collection Navarasa, co-produced by Mani Ratnam. Or Unpaused, five shorts made during the pandemic, dealing with the havoc that Covid-19 has wreaked on us (directors included Raj and DK, Nikkhil Advani and Avinash Arun, whose Vishaanu was the stand-out). Or Ray, a collection of four films, each about an hour long, based on the short stories of Satyajit Ray.
Each has been a mix of the sparkling and the mediocre. Which is of course part of the allure. Anthologies are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. The best anthologies work like a grand orchestra, in which varied cinematic visions riff off one other. A case in point is Lust Stories (2018), in which the minimalism of Zoya Akhtar’s superb short about a furtive affair between a middle-class man and his maid (played by a solid Bhumi Pednekar) was offset by the maximalism of Karan Johar’s film about a newly married woman (Kiara Advani, in a career-changing role) and her errant vibrator. There was mischief and melancholy. There was also the excitement of comparing and ranking storytellers who were all interpreting the same theme. It was, in a sense, the closest thing you can get in the movies to a direct competition.
Then came Covid-19. Through the pandemic, anthology films became the preferred format. It’s easy to see why. The crisis upended life so completely that it was impossible for one film to capture our new, even more miserable and fractured world. Short films are also, by design, more contained, in budget and scale. They were easier to execute with Covid protocols. As uncertainty became the new normal, it was also easier to get artists to commit to a few days of work rather than try and plan more ambitious projects.
In terms of logistics and execution, anthologies were the right answer. Except that making a short film is a unique art. It requires economy of expression and the ability to layer each frame and dramatic beat with multiple meanings so that the smallest gesture speaks volumes – think of the expression on the face of Bharti Mandal (played by an excellent Konkona Sen Sharma) in the last shot of Neeraj Ghaywan’s masterful Geeli Pucchi in this year’s Ajeeb Daastaans anthology. Mandal is a gay, Dalit woman who has just turned the screws on an upper-caste woman she befriended. The look in her eyes, as she drinks out of a steel mug (because the woman’s family doesn’t deem her fit for ceramic), is exquisite. It’s twisted and sad but also superbly satisfying. Neeraj, who also made the terrific 2017 short film Juice with Shefali Shah, keenly understands the grammar of shorts.
Many filmmakers simply don’t have this particular skill. The truth is, being able to make a feature does nothing to guarantee that you’ll be able to make a short. Which is why so many anthologies are so feeble. The worst I’ve seen recently is Kaali Peeli Tales, streaming on Amazon miniTV. It’s a collection of six short films that range from silly to flat-out awful.
Perhaps it’s time to rest and reboot the format. Anthologies are inherently a many-splendoured thing. The best ones endure; think of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha, made in 2010, and still capable of evoking shock and horror.
That’s the standard makers should aspire to.