Lassoing across the junkyard of outer space, an all-consuming love letter between parent and child threatens to be lost in transmission. “Four years later, I will bring back pieces of the Sun for you,” astronaut Iqbal Ali waxes lyrical by his daughter Afreen’s bedside. The morning of his mission, Ali had planned an Irish goodbye but the dozing five-year-old held on with all the strength in her tiny palm. While Project Dwarka 413 to colonise Jupiter’s smallest moon must be important enough for the future of humankind, this stolen moment is all that seems to matter, a hesitant leave taking between father and daughter ripples throughout infinity.
Such is the cyclical nature of sci-fi director Arati Kadav’s fixation with the temporality of human existence, echoes of which we heard in her Netflix feature Cargo (2017) and reappearing more poignantly than ever in this 15 minute short film, The Astronaut And His Parrot (2022). In keeping with a low-budget production, the Fantasia Fest winner was shot on multiple handsets of iPhone 12 Pro Max rigged to actor Ali Fazal, while an intuitive capture experience afforded by video camera app Filmic Pro seamlessly elevated the image so that even Apple CEO Tim Cook was awestruck. A sparse soundscape designed by Sarit Sekhar Chatterjee envelopes the spacewalker, his dry heaving punctuated by cold beeps and trills from a gauge that registers 8 more minutes of oxygen left.
Ali is free falling, untethered from the ship, possessed by his daughter's memory that flits across the cracked visor. Visitations of lens flares and subliminal VFX harken back to Cuarón's Gravity (2013) albeit scaled down to a more DIY, emotion-heavy rendition. While back on Earth, amidst the chicanery of rudraksha beads and corny flyers reading "Every single day is a gift from the Universe," a fortune-telling parrot (more accurately a rose-ringed parakeet) picks up the garbled last words of a panic-stricken Ali.
Like tuning into God's radio, this parrot endearingly nicknamed Manohar, perches close to a Hi-Fi transistor and by simply responding to a long wave beamed through the vacuum, becomes a vehicle of transformation that the astronaut could have never imagined. For surely, the hope that his missive shall reach Afreen is thinning out like the ether that surrounds Ali, something about the way Manohar's pupils dilate and contract seem to promise a miracle. Husky, mouth sore with exertion and willing to give up any time, Ali patiently repeats himself over and over again until Manohar is singing from rooftops. More parrots pick up the chant, soaring above temples and riverside settlements, swinging from power lines in nebulous cities where people have forgotten how to parse birdsong. Will this unlikely game of whispers reach the girl waiting for her father?
Choosing harnesses to suspend our disbelief, a black screen emulating the inkiness of an intergalactic limen, this fuss-free and innovative style of storytelling distinguishes Arati Kadav from her contemporaries. Picking up a threnody that has blossomed through the fabric of science fiction ever since Icarus flew soared higher than anyone else, susceptible in recent masterpieces like Interstellar (2014) and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), the director of this short film explores longing. True, unbridled longing for a connection that can sunder apart galaxies, pierce the heart of a blackhole. If only the one you love would know that you care, you are watching out for them and one day you'll be back.