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According to a friend who makes movies, most of the fiction being written right now is technically science fiction—even if that’s not what we are setting out to write. This is because while we write thrillers or romances or dramas that happen conveniently to be pandemic-adjacent—either before or after our current situation—we are imagining a maskless world very different from our current reality. That comment hit me with a scary dose of perspective, especially sobering to those of us waiting for everything to, eventually, return to the way we were.

The alternative, of course, may be an even more uphill climb: to actually look at the pandemic with enough detachment to offer genuine insight. A tough ask when the whole world is flailing.

Now we are beginning to observe Plan C. We are currently seeing the first wave of shows not merely about the pandemic, but shot using the constraints forced upon us by coronavirus—isolated characters communicating via video-calls, messaging and screen-sharing—leading to shows that momentarily make our TV sets resemble our phones and laptops. Alarming as this sounds, it creates room for radical creative experimentation.

The Gone Game, now streaming on Voot Select, is an ambitious and tight thriller involving members of a far-flung family assembling for video-calls and dealing with one of them being diagnosed covid-19 positive. Directed by Nikhil Nagesh Bhat and impressively filmed (for the most part) in the actors’ own homes, the show strings together a compelling narrative about a family member succumbing to the virus. Has he really “#gonetoosoon", as his wife says on Instagram, or is there more to this than meets the screen?

The four-episode miniseries has a fine cast—headlined by Sanjay Kapoor, Shweta Tripathi Sharma and Shriya Pilgaonkar—and the goings on hold our interest. Allegations of murder, misinformation, kidnapping and infidelity are made by people helplessly stuck on different screens in faraway towns, constantly huddling via videoconference, a “famcall" bringing everyone together.

We relate. Starved of seeing people in the flesh, we are making more video-calls than ever. This is ideal for a twisty thriller, as members of a family are masterful at concocting elaborate conspiracy theories, at colluding based on convenience, or simply at choosing whom to leave out of the call and when. Faced by screens at all times, we end up looking more closely at them, scrutinizing them for details and clues. I won’t give away any plot from The Gone Game but it is hard not to identify with its characters. Wisely, the makers don’t bog us down with backstories and character histories; instead, we find ourselves eavesdropping on a family’s increasingly suspenseful conversations.

The twists themselves are contrived, and the eventual revelations tumble out all too conveniently. Yet I enjoyed swallowing the show in one evening, hooked primarily by the performances. Sharma brings fierce urgency to the part of a sister living in a distant city, cut off from parents as well as brother, eager to help and therefore combing the internet to do so. Kapoor is suitably desperate as a gruff man of means who realizes too much is beyond his control. Pilgaonkar is the first character who draws us in, an Instagram influencer under fire from her mother-in-law for posting a picture from an online shradh ceremony.

The idea of the Instagram influencer as a heroine, an easy trope in the video-call genre, is also witnessed in Shreya Dhanwanthary’s A Viral Wedding (Eros Now), where the Family Man actress plays an influencer choosing to have her wedding online, so that everyone—from her father in hospital to the 2.1 million followers of her make-up tutorials—can attend.

The production is incredibly raw—the 7-minute episodes look to be shot on phones and webcams without bothering about how flat the light is—yet the show weaves in commentary. Characters rant about the way sudden lockdown announcements endangered consumers thronging to shops, about the way people on the streets are beaten either by mobs or by policemen, and about know-it-all parents who swear by home remedies circulated on WhatsApp. The intent is in the right place. A Viral Wedding may not be memorable, but has its moments.

The pandemic isn’t leaving. We have no clue when we will be able to take our masks off, and life will again begin to resemble the world circa six months ago—whether it will take six more months or six more years. It is therefore important to hail the intrepid creators trying to make the best of this unprecedented uncertainty by weaving stories around our situation as it stands. These shows may not be great—yet— but the evolving genre shows a hunger to innovate. Watching them is easy, given how voyeuristically they feed into our own current situation.

A friend who shoots advertisements told me her greatest learning from remotely directing TV commercials was that they should pick technicians who can act rather than actors, since it’s excruciatingly hard to tell an actor which button to press or how to frame a shot. Yet, despite the odds and the limitations, the storytellers soldier on. They are still trying to captivate us, even when they are—literally—left to their own devices.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

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