All movie stills courtesy Netflix 

I Play a Man in Love With a Mannequin in a Movie. Here's What I Learned About Loneliness.

“When you can’t possibly escape anything, all you can be left with is talking to walls and inanimate objects.”

Not too long ago, Mumbai’s local civic body unanimously proposed a ban on mannequins dressed in lingerie displayed on storefronts. The rationale behind the move: It would prevent sex crimes. 

If the idea was to also curb sexual activity involving inanimate objects, it remained far from accomplished. Despite the ethico-legal conundrum around the ban on sex toys in the country, Indian cities recorded bumper sales of sex toys and other sexual wellness products in the pandemic. Coincidentally, Mumbai topped the list. 


When Abhishek Banerjee, a 36-year-old Bollywood actor based in Mumbai, was offered the role of a lower-middle-class worker in a clothing shop who falls in love with a new mannequin, he knew the role would inadvertently end up being personal.  

From a hammer-wielding killer-for-hire who has a soft spot for dogs in the web series Paatal Lok to a sly psychopathic doctor in Mirzapur, Banerjee – also a casting director – has essayed a wide array of roles on streaming platforms. 

“I knew there wasn’t going to be an actor with whom I could prepare for my [new] role,” Banerjee told VICE. “There are various scenes where my character can be seen conversing with other ‘real’ people, but it is when he converses with Pari, the mannequin, that he truly comes alive.”


The short film, directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, opens Netflix’s anthology Ankahi Kahaniya (roughly translated to “Unsaid Stories”) on September 17. The Banerjee-starrer is one of three short films in the anthology that explores love, loss and longing in Mumbai.

For this short, the directorial brief to Banerjee was succinct: Neither the camera nor the actor would be sexualising Pari.

“I had to find a fine line between love and lust. Sex can perhaps be seen as a natural progression in such an equation, but it all depends on how his character truly saw her,” Banerjee said. “When he first sees Pari, he is convinced that her smile is only for him, that her eyes only see him. But with every scene, he gets a little bolder. It begins with an innocent attraction and changes into an obsession to the point where he simply won’t allow other co-workers to change Pari’s clothes.”


Banerjee prepared for the role amid the pandemic. With no shopping malls or mannequins at his disposal to get into the skin of his character, he relied on the only co-actor he had: curtains. 

“I’d sit in my drawing room and rehearse the lines by simply looking at the curtains in my room,” he recollected. “I’d admire their colour, texture, and the deepest grain. This was not my strategy; my subconscious took over by default.” 

When he finally saw Pari, the mannequin, on the first day of the shooting, he was only too relieved because there was finally a face to Pari. As filming days went on, his off-screen rapport with Pari developed, too. 

“After a particular scene was shot, I’d secretly talk to her without anyone noticing,” he said. “I’d compliment her on a great shot or how beautiful she looked in another scene.” 


The film, essentially, tells the story of a man whose loneliness slowly unravels, often to disastrous results. And the mannequin became just the right medium to highlight the nuanced reality of his anthropomorphic obsession. 

Psychologists Nicholas Epley, Adam Waytz, and John Cacioppo have proposed that people perceive life in inanimate objects when they truly crave social contact. Another study found that the lonelier people are, the more likely they are to see human qualities in gadgetsOn the other hand, less lonely people were less prone to anthropomorphising.


For the film, Banerjee had to channel his own tryst with loneliness, the pangs of which he'd felt when he had first arrived in Mumbai in the early 2000s with starry-eyed dreams of Bollywood. 

“Whenever I’d visit shopping malls, I was always intrigued by the lives of the salesmen in its many glitzy shops,” he explained. “I’d wonder what their dreams were, how they felt about the fact that they couldn’t possibly buy the things they were selling. Because when I came to Mumbai, I was also in the same position.”

And then a realisation dawned on him: He hardly had any friends. 

“Mumbai is a lonely city, whatever way you look at it,” he said. “When I started out, I managed to make quite a few friends, but with time, people grew distant or they found other jobs. It was only recently in the pandemic that I realised despite being in the industry for almost two decades now, I hardly have any friends. And it was not an easy realisation to come to terms with.” 

The loneliness only got exacerbated in the pandemic, particularly when his wife’s routine changed radically, in contrast to his. 

“I’ve always been a late sleeper, and in many ways, so has my wife,” he explained. “But in the pandemic, she started sleeping on time as she became more conscious about fitness. And then the nights only became longer, and I’d spend hours rehearsing those lines with my curtains, even sharing my fears with them.”


The way Banerjee sees it, this was only natural, perhaps even necessary. He did not necessarily unravel like his on-screen character, but he – like many of us – was confronted with truths about the “many gradations of loneliness” in the pandemic. 

Screenshot 2021-09-13 at 5.07.48 PM.png

“Early on, neither of us could physically run away from our problems and go for a trip,” he added. “And when you can’t possibly escape anything, all you can be left with is talking to walls and inanimate objects. Isn’t that perhaps more normal and real?”

In one of the film’s most stirring monologues, Banerjee’s character breaks down and thanks Pari for sharing his “burden of loneliness.” 

We see Pari all stoic and with gentle eyes, dressed in the brightest finery, with a smile barely grazing her face. Even though it’s the same mannequin, Banerjee’s crushing, honest monologue towards the end further “humanises” Pari. 

On a personal level, Banerjee knew he would miss Pari once the film wrapped up: She had become his favourite co-actor. 

“I never felt Pari was lifeless. I always felt that I could see her smile. And naturally, there was this looming sense of loss when the shoot ended,” he said. 


“I knew I was never going to see her again. But the goodbye was important too, as sometimes a sense of closure is perhaps what keeps you from completely losing it.” 

Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.