Cast: Varun Dhawan, Banita Sandhu, Gitanjali Rao, Iteeva Pande, Karamveer Kanwar, Prateek Kapur
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Perhaps, I thought at first, Shoojit Sircar’s film, October, is about a boy who so loathes the life that has been strapped on to him — somewhat by circumstance, but mostly due to his own meagre marketable skills — that he lugs it around like an unwieldy large boulder.
Often hunching, eyeballing the floor, he seems to be trying hard to carry on till he just snaps and throws it all off. This routine, like the Myth of Sisyphus, repeats itself till he sees an exit door.
Or, perhaps, I thought, October is about a seemingly nikamma, nakara boy who is constantly railing against the “normal” world, earning, en route, the disappointment of all those who love him and the disapproval of the ones who don’t, till he finds his niche and comes into his own — a moment acknowledged by his mother who arrives to scold, harangue, but leaves hassled and overwhelmed at how little she knows him. Or, perhaps, I thought, October, where the heroine, so to speak, fades away after three-four rather brief scenes, is about right to life. About the right to live even when you can’t actually say it, about being there only in part, and making peace with that. About feeling, experiencing, enjoying love even when you can neither acknowledge it, nor reciprocate it.
But towards the end, as October winds down, sits to chat over a cup of tea while looking lovingly at those orange-stemmed, delicate Harsringar flowers, the ones that bloom at night and drop to the ground in the morning, I thought October is about grief. It’s about love, of course. But more than that, it’s about the inevitable grief that love leads to. It’s about embracing grief, about saving a memory of the one who’s gone, but also about holding on to that precious little remnant from what was once a large mosaic, because in that broken piece lies not just the flashback to what was, but also who you were, once.
Because with the passing of that loved one, who you were died as well.
October, written by Juhi Chaturvedi and directed by Shoojit Sircar, is about all this and much more.
At one level their film is about Dan, a boy-man stuck in meticulously detailed but soul-sapping daily chores — his is a job where perfection must be achieved in a hectic burst of activity as a matter of routine. Despite knowing that beauty, precision, excellence will be taken for granted and thus go unappreciated, it must be realised with the same vigour every single day.
Dan repeatedly rebels against the inhumanity of these deathly chores — he has a need to be able to see himself doing something he can take joy, even pride, in.
And yet, when he checks out, he moves on to nurturing a kind of love that too demands precise, daily, dedicated devotion without much reciprocity. Yet he carries on, smiling, because that small twitch, that tantrum, gesture, he knows, is born out of love.
Somewhere in or around Delhi, October opens to snapshots of staff prepping up a five-star hotel for that day. We watch a group of trainees cleaning, polishing, getting the hotel guest-ready.
Amongst the trainees is Dan (Varun Dhawan). We get to see him from behind and top — the camera making us not just watch him, but read him as he vacuums the wall-to-wall carpet on a floor.
In between scenes of the depressing monotony of chores that yield a welcoming, smiling hotel, we often cross over to the hotel’s hindquarters.
While in the front, serfdom is honed, perfected, in the narrow, grimy staff quarters, it rests a bit, eats. We get glimpses of their personal world, listen to their banter, plans of opening their own restaurants and figure out who is sleeping with whom as they queue up holding rectangular steel thalis with four distinct cavities that define their own meals.
All have internalised a message that’s sent out repeatedly by their boss, as a threat and motivation: Breaking the bond that they have signed means no diploma and parents having to pay Rs 3 lakh.
All except Dan.
He steals booze from a banquet, behaves badly with guests, misses shifts, doesn’t want to do what’s assigned. He is the problem trainee and is kept away from the lobby and the front office. Mostly he’s made to clean carpets, at times he zaps flies with an electric racquet, or gets sent to the claustrophobic laundry room where the whirring tumble of dirty linen drowns out human voices.
But Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) hears the snarky one he mumbles in a staff meeting, and at a party she asks, “Where is Dan?”
An accident takes place and almost instinctively Dan moves from the hotel to the hospital. As he does so, the cast of characters changes.
Now, instead of his batchmates and friends, there’s a nurse who chides him.
Instead of his exasperated boss, there are hospital guards, and instead of his mother, there is Vidya Iyer (Gitanjali Rao), an IIT professor, with her young daughter Kaveri (Iteeva Pande), and son Kunal (Karamveer Kanwar).
Without being asked to, and without really having a tangible reason, Dan assumes charge.
He can look straight at the shaved head which has a post-it stuck to it, announcing “no bone”, and talk. Often providing the answers himself.
This space seeps into his being, making him smell of itself, yet he likes being here because here he is important, because here others answer his questions, because here he is in charge of a human being.
He notes the amount of urine in the plastic bag hanging from the bed without cringing, simply as a measure of how healthy the kidneys are.
Let’s pause here a second to acknowledge the brilliance of Ms Chaturvedi and Mr Sircar — the duo who gave us Vicky Donor, Piku and now October.
They show unseemly things and talk about them so casually that if we are not paying attention we’ll miss the fact that a significant cinematic milestone has been crossed. And here there are many — a single mother, a woman IIT professor, a urine bag attached to a key character…
In between taking care of the patient, we listen in on talk of pulling the plug. It’s practical advice, to both — Prof. Iyer, and to Dan — to let go and get on with their own lives.
Though it’s really about people articulating their own limitations — of finances, emotions, patience — it is presented as if they are ventriloquising the feelings of the one lying on the bed.
But a bond is slowly getting formed, despite the strange pipes, noisy machines and scary beeps.
We wonder at times if Dan is being heard. And if he’s being, is he being understood?
They were not best friends. They were not lovers.
And they remain undefined.
If you have ever lost someone very dear to you, you know that sudden, debilitating jolt at not being able to recall with clarity a particular gesture, the shape of the hand, that strange toe nail, the feel of that skin, their smell...
October, which carries strains of Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar) and Sadma (1983 film starring Sridevi and Kamal Haasan), feels slightly slow and long in the middle because its screenplay is sparse. The film’s belly sags a bit because though characters are introduced, they don’t take off. Nothing much happens, and we watch the same things over and over.
But, as it approaches the end, October gathers itself and keeps growing in stature.
While making no attempt to explain some puzzling bits, it leads us to the finale — a moment of love and grief so powerful, so profoundly sad and beautiful that several hours after I finished watching the film I found it gently tugging at my heart, squeezing out some hidden, buried grief.
I’m teary eyed as I write this, and I will, I think, in a day or two, look up at the sky and howl — loud, hard and for a while.
October has inspired casting and exceptional performances. Gitanjali Rao as the archetype Delhi professor is exquisite, elegant. She brings warmth to her character despite a very measured performance. There’s quiet certitude in her movement, and authenticity to her fear, sadness.
Her children, played by Iteeva Pande and Karamveer Kanwar, are cool, urbane and good, and Dan’s boss Asthana, played by Prateek Kapur, is excellent.
But October really belongs to Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu.
The role and character of Dan — an uneasy round peg in a square world — seems to have been written keeping in mind Dhawan’s habit of pulling faces and infantilising himself in emotional scenes. He does that a lot here initially, and then comes into his own, maturing, changing as his character grows. I have always believed Dhawan to be an excellent actor. And here he is simply lovely.
What can I say about Ms Banita Sandhu?
Hers is a role the weak-hearted won’t touch. And she makes it purr and roar with her still brilliance. Bravo!...