“October”… A fascinating attempt that’s easier to admire from a distance than embrace wholeheartedly

Posted on April 17, 2018


Spoilers ahead…

How do you show the transformation of a man without actually showing the transformation — or without showing what his “before” state is, so we know how much he’s changed by observing him in the present day? That’s the daunting challenge (director) Shoojit Sircar and (writer) Juhi Chaturvedi take up in their latest, most ambitious film, October. Varun Dhawan stars as Dan, a hotel-management trainee. His “before” state is a vague ambition. (I want to open a restaurant! I want to do more than just vacuum rooms! I want! I want! I want!) But he doesn’t seem to have much of a work ethic. Who is he? There’s vagueness there too. An army dad in Kashmir. A mother who appears distant. Whatever it is, Dan is — as his friends keep pointing out — constantly irritated. And maybe he’s a bit of a child as well. Why else would he abandon a lost little boy instead of trying to find out where the parents are, unless he is himself… a lost little boy?

The film’s grand (yet delicate) conceit is that Dan “grows up” when he begins to visit a comatose co-worker (Shiuli, played by Banita Sandhu). Her last words, during a get-together before her accident, were, “Where is Dan?” (Apparently, she is not bothered by the question that nags us, namely: “Who is Dan?) As staged, these last words come off as idle curiosity, a more amicable equivalent of, “When the hell is the pizza delivery guy going to come, yaar?” But to Dan, these words assume life-altering proportions. Was Shiuli in love with him? If not, why else did she enquire about his whereabouts? This amorphous question, strangely, becomes the one specific thing in Dan’s vague life. He has the question. He needs the answer.

And to get this answer, Dan needs to be around Shiuli, make sure she’s cared for and wakes up. The premise is a less-stalkery version of Pedro Almodóvar’s masterpiece, Talk to Her — though we do get a creepily invasive moment when Dan brings in a beautician to shape Shiuli’s eyebrows, while the latter is still in a coma. But because Dan is Dan, and because he’s played by the ultra-likeable Varun Dhawan, we’re meant to find this “cute”… I think! The way Dan lifts his legs (and asks others to lift theirs) while a hospital worker swabs the floors; the way he spits out a biscuit (and continues to talk) when he’s told he cannot eat in that section of the hospital; the way he (firmly yet non-threateningly) ticks off an orderly for “staring” at Shiuli — it all comes off as “cute.”

Maybe a different actor would have found different notes to play. Dhawan is a performer whose life force gushes out even when he’s standing and chewing gum (he’s like Govinda, that way) — and to cast him as this man with a mysterious inner life is a little like casting Marilyn Monroe as a nun. Dhawan certainly gives it his all — he’s earnest, but rehearsed. We don’t see Dan. We see an actor trying hard to be Dan. The one time his casting became interesting to me was when I saw Dan being screamed at by a disgruntled and entitled hotel guest. Did Dhawan remember the times he checked into hotels and treated the staff as though they were invisible (not in a malicious way, but like how we barely glance at servants, sometimes)?

I was with Dan for a while, but after a point, I began to tire of his unknowability. (We learn his full name near the end, and it didn’t matter to me.) At one point, Shiuli’s practical-minded uncle recommends pulling the plug because even if she were to wake up, she may end up a vegetable, and not remember them. Dan says, “So what? You’ll remember who she is, right?” Where is this idiot-savant wisdom coming from? I couldn’t have been more startled if Mr. Bean had suddenly spouted a Zen koan. When Imtiaz Ali handled a similar situation in Rockstar (the girl bloomed in the guy’s presence; she wilted when he was away), he infused his Sufi-madness and made the scenes sing. But if Rockstar was a grand aria, October is the night-time murmur of a mountain brook. The tone is different, and so is the treatment.

The most fascinating aspect of the writing is that it doesn’t seem like “screenwriting” at all. Juhi Chaturvedi avoids dramatic ups and downs in favour of a Dan-like approach, where she seems to be guided by a vague and pure inner impulse that even she cannot define. One of her tools is repetition, which is just another word for the slow, unvarying nature of the way the days slip by. Both halves of the film begin with a train slicing through a foggy Delhi. There are many shots of Dan riding his bike on foggy roads at night, of Dan taking money from friends, of Dan being asked to be more “practical.” The early scenes reinforce the monotony of hotel drudgery, but as Dan “grows up,” he moves outside, and he’s repeatedly shot through branches and flowers and leaves. We practically feel a soul being cleansed, if that is indeed what’s happening here.

The other major aspect of the screenplay is the minutiae. Dan’s hospital visits almost resemble a procedural. The first time he sets out to visit Shiuli, a friend asks him to leave his bag behind, and then, at the hospital, he’s asked to remove his shoes and sanitise his hands, and then he comes home and speaks to his roommate about the “gale wala pipe,” the pipe in Shiuli’s throat, which he feels is inserted wrongly. This numbing everydayness is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s attended to a loved one in a hospital. But how much minutiae can one movie take? When Shiuli opens her eyes, only doctors and nurses are around. They ask her to look to the left, then to the right. The same scene is repeated with Shiuli’s family, and then we get a third iteration with just Dan around. Or consider the scene where Dan tries to get into the hospital at night. He argues with the security guard, then a stranger offers Dan his night pass, and finally, Dan pleads with the night attendant… How much would we have lost had Dan just argued with the security guard and was then shown standing beside Shiuli’s bed?

You could certainly argue that all of this adds to a realistic account of Dan’s evolution (since we don’t know what’s happening inside him, we need to see the externals) — but these micro details take away from the macro picture. I was always in the movie, but not into it. At every point, I wanted to know what next, but I wasn’t holding my breath. For the first time in the career of this writer-director duo, I felt a tweeness (Shantanu Moitra’s score includes a harp!), the effort to make a Great Movie™. The greatness of Vicky Donor and Piku was organic and effortless, but in October, the humorous passages feel forced (save for bits like Dan’s chat with a Malayali nurse, played by Adishakti’s Nimmi Raphael) and the dramatic scenes are weighed down by a strained kind of “poetry.” (The scene where we first see Shiuli gather flowers is exquisite — Dan literally wakes up and smells the flowers — but the later scene that explains Shiuli’s name and the Significance of the Title is uncharacteristically graceless.) I am second to none in my love for glacially paced narratives, but shouldn’t the payoff be worth it?

And it’s a problem when you care more about the people around Dan and Shiuli. The short bursts of scenes with Dan’s boss (Prateek Kapoor) are wonderfully attuned to the fatherly gruffness that’s a prerequisite in a really good mentor. The stretch with Dan’s mother (Rachica Oswal) is devastating. She sees Dan being involved with Shiuli’s family in a way he probably never was with his, and you feel for her all the more because she doesn’t say a word. And finally to the film’s real star, Gitanjali Rao, who plays Shiuli’s mother, Professor Vidya Iyer. She looks like an IIT professor. She looks like a frazzled mother, close to breaking point. In the midst of all the preciousness, she feels real, grounded. My favourite scene is when her son asks if he should go for his coaching class, given Shiuli’s condition, and she doesn’t blink before saying he should. Life goes on, as it must.

The relationship between her and Dan is more convincing than the non-relationship between Dan and Shiuli (or even the one between Dan and his own self). She is comforted by this odd boy and his doggedness. And yet, she sees he cannot be wasting all his time on Shiuli. Life goes on, as it must. In a fabulously framed scene, she asks Dan to leave. She is staring out of a window, and Dan is hidden behind the door — we don’t quite see him. This is where you know the film isn’t about Varun Dhawan, the star, but about Dan. It’s heartening. There are many wonderful moments in October, but the epiphany never quite arrives. Some will say that’s okay, that just the experience is enough. I guess I wanted more from what I found a fascinating experiment rather than a fulfilling film.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi