A combination of documentary and fiction, Malayalam short ‘Sha Sa Ha’ speaks of living in the pandemic

Making the film was a therapeutic experience for Kochi-based filmmaker, Ratheesh Ravindran

Like many others, being confined during lockdown was not easy for cinematographer Ratheesh Ravindran. As days turned to weeks and weeks to months, the seeming endlessness of it made work seem a distant possibility. The uncertainty got to him. That is when a friend and, eventually, producer Sharmila Nair suggested that he use the time to make a film. “The subject was obvious — lockdown and how it affected people,” he says of Sha Sa Ha, his 40-minute ‘docu-fiction’, currently streaming on Nee Stream.

Since getting out to shoot was not an option, he scoured through old footage that he hadn’t used for his films. “I had kept them as I didn’t know how to structure it [the footage]” he says. He intended the film to move between the past (2013) and the present. In order to place the footage in the current context, he asked the ‘subjects’ to film themselves and share the video since he couldn’t travel.

“All of that has been shot on smartphones, unlike the earlier footage.”

The stories are as diverse as the people featured; they are a motley mix drawn from different parts of Kerala. So there is a poet-research fellow, the former principal of a school for the blind, an ex-serviceman who is a swimming instructor, a Nangiarkoothu performer, a budding actor, and a restaurateur among others. While some of the people featured were part of the earlier recording, there were new stories of people who found their way during the pandemic.

Sha Sa Ha tells the story of life — pre and during the pandemic. Each person’s story becomes a part of the larger narrative that draws analogies between the present circumstances (caused by COVID-19) and creativity, art, disability and entrepreneurship. The parallels are interesting and largely organic — coronavirus, therefore, is akin to the spirits we cannot see; masks of ritualistic performances; the confinement of the space of art.

The pre-COVID past in the film seems like another place in time. The found-footage format conveys the sense of confinement while offering a peek into the narrator’s psyche. Juxtaposed is the point of view of the narrator or Ratheesh’s emotions and feelings.

Offering an alternative to the theme of confinement is Sathyaseelan, former principal of School for Blind (Kunnumkulam) who, with his son, developed Sarada Braille Writer, a free software for the blind. He does not miss the outside, because it is not a safe place for the disabled and he seems to prefer to be where he is.

The film starts on Day 60 of the lockdown, “the first few days just pass. You don’t recognise the lockdown immediately, that happens later. It hit me also later. I couldn’t step out, couldn’t do anything, was not able to visit my parents. Working on this film was therapeutic.”

An alumnus of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, where he studied cinematography, he lived and worked in Kolkata from 2006 to 2015. His other films include The Aquarium, Pixelia (feature film), and Deenam. Pixelia was screened at several film festivals such as the Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) and the New York Africa Diaspora International Film Festival, among others.

The film ends on a note of hope. A budding actor’s debut film gets postponed due to lockdown, he ends up setting up a successful momo business. Sha Sa Ha are the last letters of the Malayalam alphabet, Ratheesh seems to suggest that there is always the possibility of new beginnings despite what seems .

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