New web-series Blinking Twice uses subtle horror and suspense to preach mental health awareness

Published 11 Feb, 2022 03:26pm

The series focuses on a counsellor and his clients and premieres on YouTube today.

A hanging drip, a beeping cardiac monitor, an old frail man in bed — and later, an old tape recorder and a twice blinking lamp — the feeling of unease suffocates from the first few frames of Blinking Twice, Syed Zeshan Ahmed’s new thick-on-ambiance web-series premiering today (Friday) on YouTube

The series of four episodes, ranging from 15 to 20 minutes, could be mistaken for horror but it’s not. Enigmatic, certainly, but not horror, per se.

In the first two episodes, titled Secret Clicks and Slave of a Doll, uploaded privately for Images to preview, there is a slow-burn of mystery as the series sets its pace. The setting is the home of a psychiatrist, Faizan (Syed Afraz Rasool), whose father lies on the bed, critically-ill in the next room.

Almost the entire series is set within that one room, I am told by Zeshan, who serves as the producer, director and screenwriter of the show (the series also credits Ali Khurrum Rathore and Muhammad Khizer as writers).

“I wanted to give the feeling we once used to have when hearing bedtime stories. Other productions would have cut to a B-Roll (cut-aways to other scenes and locations, re-enacting the narratives), but that’s not what the idea was about,” he explains.

In episode one, Secret Clicks, Faizan gets a late-night visit from a frantic IT professional. Despite the doctor’s insistence to get an appointment the next day, the man (Paras Masoor, excellent), doesn’t take no for an answer: he shows the doctor photos of him sleeping…taken from a high-enough angle by someone else. Is he mad, he asks?

In the next episode, Slave of a Doll, which should premiere on February 18, a young maid (Kanwal Khan, another excellent performance), is brought-in for a session without an appointment by the maid who works next door. Again, despite Faizan’s reluctance, the case is forced upon him. Kanwal doesn’t speak at first and carries a doll that ties into a cultural practice from where she’s from. The girl is as traumatised as the man in the first episode.

“The look is of suspense, thriller, horror, but the story’s gist is about mental health awareness — of what the patients see, feel and experience,” the director says. Zeshan didn’t want the story to be preachy, he says — he deliberately opted to “sandwich the message within entertainment”.

The story is not always about successes either, he explains. “Counselling is not an easy task, as evident in the end of the second episode.”

Zeshan holds a BS in Media Sciences from Szabist, and has worked for Hum TV and BBC World Service before eventually creating Black Production Films where his documentary and corporate clientele include Facebook, Abraaj, Shell, US Aid, UNICEF, Vice News and CNN’s Great Big Stories. Secretly though, he says, he has been waiting for the right time to jump to narrative filmmaking.

Zeshan has been teaching at Iqra, Ziauddin and Greenwich Universities, plucking youngsters with potential out of his batches.

The reason for YouTube is a no-brainer, he says, since there is little regulation and almost no politics of what type of stories one can and cannot say here, as opposed to working in television, where there is a stringent set of limiting genres and practices.

Notwithstanding the constant back and forth slider moves when Faizan and his patients speak, the cinematography (credited to Farhan Golden) — especially in its opening credits — is befitting of the genre. At times one notices fleeting instances that will eventually tie-in to a larger overarching narrative.

There is more to the story than meets the eye, Zeshan teases. The next two episodes, Price of Our Past and The Golden Cup, starring Saleem Mairaj, Erum Akhtar and Akbar Subhani (a mainstay of the series since episode one), will clue people in on the ambiguous elements…if that is, viewers have been paying attention.

Although this is the first step for Zeshan, and he doesn’t want to get constricted to one genre, he does say that he has plans for a second season of Blinking Twice.