Before 2020, Tamil filmmaker Gautham Vasudev Menon had never made a short film in his two-decade-long career. He ended up making three this year alone, all part of anthologies for OTT platforms. The first, Avarum Naanum, Avalum Naanum (part of an anthology titled Putham Pudhu Kaalai) released on Amazon Prime in October; Vaanmagal (or Sin, part of Paava Kadhaigal), shot just before the lockdown, streams on Netflix from December 18, and he just finished shooting for Netflix’s second Tamil anthology, Navrasa. Menon picked the rasa [emotion] of love. “It was liberating filmmaking,” he says. “These are stories which you can’t narrate for a feature format or with actors who have to be convinced or with producers who are mostly looking to make money.” With its duration of under 40 minutes, writing it is less of a headache as there are “no second half or interval issues”. “I think I’m getting good at it,” he adds.
Stills from Putham Pudhu Kaalai
Menon is not the only one who has found freedom in the anthology format. Filmmaker Sudha Kongara also features in Putham Pudhu Kaalai and Paava Kadhaigal. Apart from Navrasa, Netflix has also commissioned The Other, four shorts which look at the “the third person in a relationship, the one who breaks it, or, maybe even completes it”. “When we look at greenlighting an anthology, all we want is to bring the story to life in the most authentic way possible,” says Srishti Behl Arya, director, International Original Films, Netflix India. RSVP Movies, which co-produced Netflix anthologies Ghost Stories and Lust Stories along with Ashi Dua, is said to have another one ready. December 18 is also the day Amazon Prime releases Unpaused, five Hindi shorts by five filmmakers with lockdown as the focus.
Nitya Mehra (Made in Heaven) was glad to be part of Unpaused’s director roster, which includes Nikkhil Advani, filmmaker duo Raj & DK, Tannishtha and Avinash Arun. What appealed to Mehra was that Aparna Purohit, head of India Originals, Amazon Prime, wanted creators to go beyond the prism of lockdown and play with the theme of “new beginnings” and include a “lens of hope”. Unlike Menon, who was in touch with his contemporaries on Paava Kadhaigal, Mehra wasn’t aware what others were making. Her film, Chaand Mubarak, examines Mumbai’s disparate societal structures through the tale of an affluent middle-aged single woman (Ratna Pathak Shah) who has to rely on a young rickshaw driver to run errands.
Mehra is a fan of short films, having started her career with one. “Unfortunately, it [The Cherry on Top, about a qawwali singer] never showed [in Mumbai] as there were hardly any places to show short films other than at film festivals,” says Mehra, who has also made Aalaspur, a short for a developing anthology on seven sins. With platforms like Netflix and Prime having viewership in over 190 countries, the lack of audience for shorts is no longer a deterrent. It’s why filmmakers are more open to the anthology process.
Actors and technicians are also not differentiating between shorts and feature anymore. Menon’s Navrasa short has Tamil star Suriya and is shot by renowned cinematographer P.C. Sreeram. Johar’s short for Lust Stories had Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani; Zoya Akhtar’s Ghost Stories had Janhvi Kapoor, and Dibakar Banerjee’s segment for Bombay Talkies was led by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Menon, though, adds that there are those still averse to the streaming medium. “Some [actors] think that it will kill their market,” he says. But 2020 has been a game-changing year in Indian cinema, with OTT platforms superseding theatres as the preferred mode of entertainment. It’s not a question of if but when stars accept it.