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Framed in solitude: When films resonate with our pandemic experience

Still from ‘Three Colours Blue’.

Still from ‘Three Colours Blue’.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

During this pandemic, we have turned to cinema for comfort, or for eerily prescient visions of our new reality

Patrice, the famous composer, is dead in a car accident. His crowded public funeral service, lush with flowers, music and media persons, is screening on the television set, with the tentative hand of his wife Julie (Juliette Binoche) gently stroking the two lonely coffins on screen — those of Patrice and their only child — as though this desperate, fleeting caressing of the image would somehow compensate for the farewell she could not say in person. It’s one of the most devastating sequences in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue, an ode to unforeseen and unfathomable loss and grief and the frantic quest for closure and reconciliation.

The recollection of this haunting scene is particularly heart-wrenching in the time of lockdown, when one has been reading one painful account after another, of video chats replacing last goodbyes; of quick, curtailed funerals by strangers rather than by family. It is as though Kieslowski, through his mise-en-scène back in 1993, envisioned the gargantuan existential crisis that would befall us in 2020.

Yet, even as we mourn the loss of human touch during the pandemic, it’s to the world of images I’ve been turning for comfort and escape, for answers and hope, often for that fellow feeling, of being in it together, sometimes just for the thrill of it.

Too familiar

Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s sci-fi film, eerily foresaw, almost a decade ago, what infected meat (“Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat”) and not washing hands properly can lead to. The references to sanitisers and not touching one’s face sound way too familiar — “Our best defence has been social distancing. No hand-shaking, staying home when you’re sick, washing your hands frequently,” says Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne).

There is Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) talking about how the average person “… touches their face two-three thousand times a day. Three to five times every waking minute. In between, we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains, elevator buttons and each other.”

Adding to the foreboding, the film shows how a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation leads to a wider global spread of both disease and panic. We seem to be actually living in Contagion’s script.

Referring to blogger and conspiracy theorist Krumwiede (Jude Law), Dr. Cheever says, “In order to get scared, all you have to do is to come in contact with a rumour or the television or the Internet. I think what Mr. Krumwiede is spreading is far more dangerous than the disease.” Replace Krumwiede with, well, we have several candidates for that slot today.

Human dimension

Another much-watched film today is Aashiq Abu’s Virus (2019), about the Nipah epidemic in Kerala in 2018 and the medical, governmental and bureaucratic efforts that went into its containment. Its story of the bravery of several unknown people who helped manage the disease resonates in 2020 — Kerala’s health minister K.K. Shailaja, played by Revathy in the film, is again leading from the front.

The plague in the South Korean series Kingdom, set in the 16th century, holds telling parallels with the outbreak today. You see Spanish film The Platform with a whole new perspective when you view it in conjunction with the hoarding of food and goods and the verticality of privileges that have become ignominious sideshows in the battle today.

Besides the nitty-gritty and details in “virus” films or even serials like Pandemic or Outbreak, there are movies that underline the other significant aspect — the immense human toll. The pandemic has altered all aspects of our lives in the blink of an eye.

It’s the exploration of this human dimension, the many paradoxes and dilemmas — not necessarily explored in films about disease and disaster alone — that has been the most compelling for me.

Little banal things

Take the identical rhythm of each day spent in isolation, summed up best in Munshi Ameerullah Tasleem’s sher (couplet): Subah hoti hai shaam hoti hai, umr yun hi tamaam hoti hai (A lifetime gets spent seeing morning lead on to evening.) From morning chai with rusk to evening coffee with a handful of dried fruits, except for minor, work-related changes of pattern in the middle, life these days often feels like Phil’s (Bill Murray) in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993).

As he says, it’s all about déjà vu; of yesterday, today and tomorrow becoming no different from each other. It’s as though one is living in a never-ending time loop. The newness of the first few days of work from home aside, many of us, after nearly a fortnight of solitary confinement, are nearing a point of mental exhaustion if not breakdown.

At times it feels like one is Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) in Vikramaditya Motwane’s survivor thriller Trapped (2016), marooned in the safety of one’s own home. It can make one feel like an island, craving human company and connection, valuing the little banal things we have always taken for granted and which are now out of reach, like a humble vada-pav.

I barely saw my neighbours’ faces this past month, only exchanging WhatsApp messages about grocery stores and quarantined buildings. I have video-consulted with my GP on an emergency health issue, even though it’s only a five-minute walk to her clinic. In such a situation there’s every likelihood of some of us turning into lonely Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) of Spike Jonze’s Her, who bonds with an artificial intelligence programme, the OS called Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson).

In contrast to that, coming back to Three Colours Blue, is Julie, deliberately withdrawing from the world: “Now I have only one thing left to do: nothing. I don’t want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps.”

Cast away at home, bereft of family ties and bonds of friendship, can we, like her, cut ourselves off from everyone and everything, even dissociate from our memories? Self-isolation and social distancing notwithstanding, can we free ourselves ever from vital human connections? Sitting by my computer, with no one around me, staring at a still street from my window, I believe the answer is a resounding no.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 4:47:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/framed-in-solitude-when-films-resonate-with-our-pandemic-experience/article31307691.ece

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