Directed by Koushik Datta/ Reviewed by Sayantan Mukherjee
Human beings are social animals and this has been the case since the days of our primate ancestors. Survival of our species depended on us coming together, forming groups and settling down as communities. With advent of private property, the concept of “individuality” gained prominence in later years but even then, outdoor activities like farming and community exercises like a village Panchayat functioned only when we worked in unity. The same has continued into the modern age with huge cities being built with parks, restaurants, cinema halls and other public spaces – enabling people to come together and spend time with each other.
All of this changed in 2020. A massive change in our societal structure was brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic which upturned our lives entirely. Public spaces were closed down, people were asked to stay at home and cities were put under lockdown. Our inherent “social” nature had to be contained until it was safe again. Filmmaking had to evolve as well and emerging techniques of stay-at-home shooting were adapted. Writer, actor and director Koushik Datta took up the challenge of shooting his 18-minute fiction film Nisanga (Alone) in this new format and chose to portray the effects of Covid-19 on the human condition.
Nisanga focuses on Rita (Ishika Sircar -fantastic lead), a lonely woman whose father has just died minutes before in middle of the night. She’s bereaved and unstable, but most of all, she’s terribly lonely. The pandemic has pushed everyone inside homes and there’s nobody she can ask for help. Rita decides to call her elder sister in Singapore and share the sad news. She’s far away but Rita needs someone to talk to. Her sister picks up the phone and immediately breaks down after hearing the news. Rita asks if she can come to India somehow, when her sister’s husband takes the phone away and explains that there’s no flights operating between Singapore and India now. It is a fact that Rita should be aware of and yet, in this moment of helplessness she becomes oblivious, trying to latch onto some support. Her sister’s husband advices Rita to ask help from her neighbor Tapan da, who would be able to assist her immediately. Rita sighs and mentions that she had already visited his house a moment ago but to no avail; even the front door wasn’t opened to her. The once helpful neighbor Tapan da had decided to change his perspective on helping people at that moment, refusing to come out to even talk to his helpless neighbor.
The film focuses on the mentality of each family Rita contacts through the night. These people are spread far and wide – some are abroad, some of them in India while others live right next door.Keeping in line with the Covid-19 filmmaking form, director Koushik Dattadivides the film into separate segments for each family and characters from one family never cross paths with the other. Hence, there’s a palpable distance between Rita and each family she contacts. But this distance is not due to the technical challenges of shooting each segment separately, it is a result of the director’s conscious storytelling choice in making them feel distant.
These people have been helped by Rita and her father Bikash at various points of their life; a point which they remember well and mention over call. But this lamentation over losing their beloved Bikash da ends then and there. Their memories are intact but a cloud of apathy has darkened their mentality now. They live in different places with separate lifestyle choices and yet, they are unified in their shared sense of self-interest. Nobody wants to risk their life to help Rita and relationships which must have been developed through decades of nurture fall apart rather quickly.
Viewers might surmise the selfishness of people refusing to help a lonely person but a moment of introspection would point out a different perspective. These apparently conceited people have families of their own – small children and old people who are at risk from a deadly communicable disease. Helping Rita in her time of need would always play second fiddle to the safety of their own family. It is easily reminiscent of the Trolley Problem, which is a thought experiment from 1976 that asks whether one could sacrifice one person to save a larger number. This abstract paradox of choice is the main focus in Nisanga and Koushik Datta finds an incredible lead in Ishika Sircar who plays her part perfectly to capture the pain and grief of Rita. She is our eyes in this crisis and her simple struggle to find one helpful person is an eye opener to the stark reality of our current situation. Rita’s coming to terms with her own loneliness through the film aids in the growth of her character and it is heartbreaking to watch.
Nisanga employs a format of film making which has been birthed due to the pandemic lock down and Koushik Datta takes this emerging form to tell a story of human psychology that’s equally archetypal and unprecedented at the same time.