Family, the 'made at home' short film, is not only a social distancing PSA, but also a lesson in 'stay at home' filmmaking

Indranil Bhattacharya

An amusing "made at home" short fiction film featuring a constellation of stars from Indian cinema €" Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, Chiranjeevi, Mammootty, Mohanlal, Shiva Rajkumar, Prosenjit, to name a few €" was released on YouTube on 6 April. Titled Family, the short film also features Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dosanjh, and Priyanka Chopra.

In Family, Bachchan portrays a forgetful patriarch who can't seem to find his dark glasses. It is a minor crisis of sorts which sends the big multilingual family into a tizzy and the spectacles are finally found. The film ends with the old man observing that he did not actually need the glasses, as he cannot go out in the sun, presumably referring to being homebound during the pandemic.

Despite its appearance, this short film is more than a self-indulgent joke by elderly superstars and their spunky young colleagues. It is a short and effective message directed towards fellow citizens, urging them to self-isolate during the coronavirus pandemic. It is also a message for budding filmmakers who are studying the rudiments of the art in films schools, communication colleges and universities.

This simple and snappy short film draws from a time-tested fundamental technique: Actors or performers who are collectively part of a scene do not physically need to be present in the actual filmed space.

Editing has the power to create an illusory relationship between characters by making us believe that they are in the same location, even when they are in different physical spaces and times. This trick, according to film historians, is a legacy which goes back to the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov who did a host of experiments with this "bread and butter" technique of filmmakers. Kuleshov was among the pioneers of the "film grammar" and he showed early filmmakers how unrelated visuals develop a logical and spatial link when they are put together in a sequence through editing.

What does that mean for the layperson €" the common film audience? For example, let us consider an imaginary two-visuals-long scene. In the first shot, you can be looking out of your window in a house in Delhi in a close shot, the second visual could be a long shot of Marine Drive in Mumbai. Unless mentioned, we do not the location of this window shot. These two are unrelated shots, probably filmed by two different people. But when put together they can create an illusion that you are looking at Marine Drive in Mumbai while being a thousand miles away in Delhi.

The actors in Family inhabit different spaces. Clever directing and editing creates an illusion of them being in the same space. This technique is used in moving image forms all time and most often, viewers are not aware of it. There are chances that viewers could see through the 'trickery', but mostly, they are too engrossed in the narrative to pay attention to this. Perhaps ordinary audiences are not bothered about these nitty-gritty.

As viewers, we know that filmmakers use a slew of tricks to cheat our senses and we allow them the license to do so. After all, that is how films work. But then again, a clever filmmaker will try not to reveal the technique used to merge the spaces. They do so by planting a continuous soundscape with the help of sound editing. So, a common atmospheric sound linking the "unrelated visuals" may be able to take the viewer's attention away from the apparent discontinuity and make the scene appear spatially continuous. In Family, for example, the visuals are in black-and-white, creating an illusion of continuity, and while the actors are in different spaces, the monochrome gives it a false uniformity. The change of location with every new visual is visually suppressed.

This short film, additionally, has another advantage €" we are more focused on the veritable parade of stars who troop in one by one, rather than the changing background in the shots. The stars, the black-and-white indoor backdrop, a similar composition of the shots create a sense of seamlessness. It renders a veneer of uniformity to the multiple distinct spaces and manipulates the viewer to reading it as a singular space.

Whether it is for a lay viewer or a film student, short films like Family could be a useful communication tool.  Young and aspiring filmmakers also recognise the potential of this technique €" and are replicating the idiom to produce creative and experimental shorts from the comfort of their homes. It is highly probable that we will see more such instances of "creative geography", to use an expression from the soviet film theorists from the Kuleshov era. And some of these copycat efforts, this writer is convinced, are likely to be a vast improvement in terms of storytelling and sophistication. The coming months will reveal if this prediction is true.

Dr Indranil Bhattacharya is professor €" Screen Studies and Research at FTII

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