The long and short of it: Mini movies on OTT platforms

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on August 28, 2020

In a nutshell: Pandit Usman is one of the many promising short movies now streaming on OTT platforms   -  IMAGE COURTESY: HOTSTAR

The short films streaming on different platforms cover every possible genre and are a pleasant foil to the noise of mega shows

* Pandit Usman  is just one of the many promising short movies you can see on OTT platforms today

* Justaju is directed by newcomer Mudassar Mashalkar

Like many Indian kids growing up in the ’90s, I was addicted to the time’s tacky horror fare, including television programmes such as The Zee Horror Show, which was about as imaginative as its name. In one episode, which prompted me to ask entirely too many questions to my beleaguered mother, a saintly and teetotaller of an artist loses his hands in a freak accident involving a lathe. A surgeon then replaces his severed hands with those of an executed murderer (who had presumably left his body to science). These notorious hands soon hit several of the artist’s loved ones, and wrap themselves around any alcohol in sight.

Much later, of course, I realised that this dramatic device — bodily transformation as a metaphor for either great good or great evil — was a common narrative tactic. The Akram Hassan short film Pandit Usman (now streaming on Hotstar) is a recent, outstanding example of the scenario. In the film, Usman (lyricist and singer Swanand Kirkire in a typically genteel outing) is a devout Muslim man who undergoes a heart transplant.

Unbeknownst to him, the surgeon replaces his heart with that of a recently deceased Hindu priest (Kumud Mishra), following which Usman starts to display what his family sees as erratic behaviour — he shaves his head except for the typical Hindu priest’s choti or ponytail; he says radhe radhe when he bumps into someone on the road; he even indulges in a bit of bhajan-kirtan on national TV. Soon, both Usman and Pandit-ji’s family members start arm-twisting the surgeon — they don’t want a Hindu heart inside a Muslim body.

At the heart of it all lies Usman’s 9-year-old son Ashu (Kabir Sajid), who doesn’t get what the fuss is all about. He’s just happy to see his father healthy and at home again. Moreover, Ashu understands that Usman is drawing the ire of those who do not understand “halke phulke dil ki halki phulki baat” (an unburdened heart’s unburdened words). The heart-warming Ashu-Usman dynamic here will remind viewers of Majid Majidi films such as Children of Heaven.

Pandit Usman is just one of the many promising short movies you can see on OTT platforms today, covering just about every genre imaginable. On the lesser-known platform MovieSaints, there’s the brilliantly told short documentary Tungrus, directed by Rishi Chandna. Tungrus follows the adventures of Mr Bharde, a meat-eating Mumbaikar who, along with his family (which includes two cats), adopts a pet rooster. Amidst the inevitable hijinks there’s also a thoughtful little passage about the ethics of eating meat, and what happens when a meat-eater’s ‘food chain’ is disturbed by the presence of a (distinctly temperamental, bordering on badass) six-month-old chicken. Detour, another short film on Hotstar, starring Sayani Gupta and Vikrant Massey, is a classic ‘strangers-in-the-night’ narrative, about carpooling passengers who strike up a conversation at the end of a long, hard day at work.

Another heartwarming, ‘feel-good’ story not entirely unlike Pandit Usman — only the narrative tension here is derived from ageism and not communal trouble – is Justaju. Director Prakash Jha plays the lead role of a disillusioned old man who rediscovers his zeal for life after an eventful train journey. Justaju is directed by newcomer Mudassar Mashalkar.

Shorts, however, aren’t merely a way of discovering new talent. There are a lot of big-ticket Indian creators, too, who are experimenting with such films now. Director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari (who made the 2017 super-hit Bareilly Ki Barfi), for example, has a short film called Ghar Ki Murgi on SonyLiv, written by her spouse and fellow director Nitesh Tiwari (of Dangal fame). It’s far from her best work, to be honest, but it is still worth a watch, not least for Sakshi Tanwar’s strong performance as the protagonist, a housewife who feels undervalued by her family.

In June, Shaan Vyas’s short Natkhat was released on YouTube, as part of the We Are One film festival. Natkhat saw Vidya Balan in a short film for the first time, starring as a mother who educates her young son Sonu about gender politics (Balan also co-produced the film). Balan’s body of work includes some of the most significant feminist texts (The Dirty Picture, Kahaani, Shakuntala Devi) in recent Bollywood history, and Natkhat feels like a worthy addition to that list.

In my opinion, streaming platforms should invest in more products such as Pandit Usman or Natkhat — and fewer blue chip, star-studded, anthology-format films Lust Stories, Ghost Stories (both are 90-minute films consisting of multiple shorts) and so on. These short films — of durations that range from 10 minutes to 30 minutes — can prove to be a quieter counterpart to the ‘noise’ of constant, big-budget releases (to give you some perspective on this, Hotstar announced as many as seven never-seen-before Bollywood releases in July, including new projects featuring the likes of Akshay Kumar, Sanjay Dutt and Alia Bhatt).

Besides, as Netflix and company increase their investment in Indian creators, these short films will also function as ‘trial runs’ for young creators before they are entrusted with larger projects. Basically, with a well-made short film, everybody wins, not least the discerning viewer.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on August 28, 2020

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