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October: When fools dare

By Sreehari Nair
April 19, 2018 12:52 IST
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A big part of October's charm is in its taking of a cinematic tragedy and presenting to us how we may experience it in real life, says Sreehari Nair.

Danish Walia (Varun Dhawan) is the perfect man to deal with death, near-death, and other unpleasant experiences, precisely because he is so bad with euphemisms.

When Dan has to console someone, he draws up personal examples that just don't fit the tragedy at hand.

At other times, he emits metaphors that one would have neatly sidestepped while offering solace. Even when he has to suggest that a certain pesky uncle is 'an animal', all he can compare him to is 'a monkey.'

If you were to tell Dan that his own story, as told in Shoojit Sircar's October, was a 'tale of selfless, unrequited love', he would have thought it excessive.

And he'd be right; for such descriptions only widen the distance between Dan and the audience; raise him to the status of an Obsessed Lover/Silent Martyr and drag us down to the level of Romantic Fools.

Dan though is just a man on the trail of his curiosity.

Shuili (Banita Sandhu), his co-intern at a 5-Star Hotel, had fallen off a terrace and down to the ground, and before beginning her final descent, she had paused to ask: "Where is Dan?"

Both we in the audience and those around Shuili may see it as a toss-away question, but Dan -- the ignoramus who can't otherwise tell poetry from a cabbage -- is hooked.

Death, however inadvertent or freakish, can shoot off a person into a state of heightened awareness at the exact instant that it happens.

A man's final words are usually interpreted as a summation of what his life had been in pursuit of: An unfulfilled yearning, an element from the past, or simply his biggest regret.

If Gandhi could have some intimation of how God does it, or if Charles Foster Kane could get back on his sled, they may have perhaps died happier.

Ram and Rosebud -- Dan surely is in a great, honorable tradition.

And so he makes repeated trips to the hospital in which Shuili is housed to further the mating of souls.


The irony of Dan's curiosity is that back when they interned together, Shuili's eyes would often gawk in his direction while he was unconscious to her presence; and now that he has found the words, she lies comatose on a hospital bed.

His vanity is that he can dominate any situation, and the hospital and Shuili's environment become his new testing ground.

Her slow progress doesn't matter to him much; he probably believes in the words of Beckett: 'Try again. Fail better.'

He turns her disinfected room into her shrine, but doesn't forget to pin up pictures of himself beside hers.

He tries to reconstruct her fall and in a moment of true sublime, gets into her car and almost becomes her.

By the end of the film, on some psychosomatic level, he is her, and it wouldn't be going too far to read October as a story of positive insanity; of schizophrenia that heals.

But that is just one reading. And there could be as many readings of this picture as there are people who watch it.

By evading easy descriptions and keeping the central emotional puzzle of October unsolved (it is for you to solve), director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi make their biggest artistic leap yet.

The mystery of October, which begins with indifference and slowly passes into the realm of occult, is paradoxically set in a whizzing world that has no patience for the mysterious.

The style of the movie is derived from intercutting life's most disturbing moments with the small, executive, details of life.

Shuili falls in the middle of a party, but Sircar has the good sense to keep the music playing.

Later, as we see her blood-soaked body being carried on a stretcher (the stretcher is pushed, on a count of three), medical parameters swarm the air: Heart, Sluggish; Pupils, Dilated; Pulse, Low.

The demise of a sister is no excuse to miss a tuition class.

It's about grand wedding numbers in the time of a Coma; Christmas songs running over helpless phone voices; scenes of mangled body parts cutting to livers being dashed off a frying pan; lovers failing to communicate even as magpies and squirrels go on dates and experience heartbreaks.

Chaturvedi and Sircar aren't interested in beauty alone, but the kind of beauty that co-exists with harshness, in beauty that isn't washed away by harshness.

Those flowers in the garden are postcard-like, but what Shoojit Sircar wants you to really appreciate are the sight of autumn flowers over a dusty car roof.

There is the emotional thrust of the storyline and within it, at every milepost, the denseness that life presents; but for its entire running time of 116 minutes, October exploits neither.

It walks between piety and satire while daringly avoiding both -- and this is what makes it so special.

What the movie gets us up-close with is not a truth of the kitchen sink variety, but a truth to be felt in our blood; it does so, by turning to blood.

And it definitely mustn't surprise you that of all Indian writers it's Juhi Chaturvedi who establishes this connection between decreasing blood levels and accelerating love.

In Chaturvedi's scripts, love comes up against the unlikeliest of stumbling blocks: Our juices, our essential shames, and our bodies restored to their most elemental form -- stripped off their designer wear, free of the perfumes.

For Chaturvedi, however, this recurring motif is not a matter of scoring a few cheap laughs (though in Vicky Donor, Shoojit Sircar, still fastened to his advertising background, may have got too captivated by Ayushmann Khurana's seed and thereby missed the spiritual heft it had for his writer).

As Chaturvedi sees it, bodily functions, procreation, and blood, all bind us in much the same way that feelings of love, envy, rage and fear do.

And this worldview is clearly not the product of a bootlegged psychiatrist's tape but sourced from her own experiences in life.

I guess it may take Juhi Chaturvedi's version of Hamlet for us to finally witness the troubled prince and Claudius coming to peace over the basic premise that they both have sweaty armpits.

And now in October, Chaturvedi, like a good obstetrician, ends up with blood up to her elbows.

One of her major projects here is demonstrating what it means to go from a sprightly, well-dressed adult one moment to an adult in diapers, covered in blood, and with pipes running in and out of you, the very next moment.

If it all sounds fatalistic, let me tell you it isn't; for in Sircar's execution, this act of boxing the compass plays out like a sitar number, with hospital corridors animated in interplays of light and darkness, and figures darting between the two extremes like fireflies.

It is magical how Shoojit Sircar uses Banita Sandhu's sharp features -- her bunny teeth, her round eyes, her thick lips -- which in scenes set inside the 5-star hotel, make her look like a Spanish woman from La Mancha, full of life and grit (she'd have played well as a matador), it's magical how those very features look on her shriveled, boyish body later, offering silent proofs of her exhaustion and of her fast receding beats.

Sandhu's Shuili Iyer is by turns the observer and the observed (the movie camera records her and we also get constant glimpses of her on CCTV footage), but it's through knowing her mother Vidya Iyer (played by Gitanjali Rao) that we get to know Shuili intimately.

Gitanjali Rao's performance as Vidya is perhaps a response to the question: 'When was the last time a Hindi film actress gave us an act of dignity without it once, or even slightly, tending to saintliness?'

Rao lives through her role as if every moment just happened to her along the way -- there is nothing preplanned in her approach, no scheme to her emotions.

When Vidya Iyer walks into a room to resume a conversation with Dan's mother and her lips stop moving abruptly, we share her surprise at being confronted with an empty room.

You get her wisdom by the way she faces up to a class of IIT students as if 'Isometric View,' and not her comatose daughter, was the only thing on her mind. You know her strength from the patterns that form on her chin every time she suppresses her tears.

Gitanjali Rao's trained actor's polish, like Nawazuddin Siddiqui's in Badlapur, is the muscle Varun Dhawan lacks, and it is this lacking in him that Shoojit Sircar cleverly uses (as Sriram Raghavan had, in Badlapur) to bring us within close range of Dan.

Dan: Dan who everybody loves; everybody hates. He's a son to anybody who may take him in, but a sonofabitch who just won't come home: his raw arrogance they can all sense, can make fun of (even the youngest character in the movie kids him around), but they all want to shield him because they understand that he too loves them as much as he hates them.

A Ranbir Kapoor would have turned Dan into a triumph of a character; a winner we could not have touched.

Vikrant Massey (a very fine actor whose growth is in danger of being stunted for all the undue praise that have come his way for that soft serve he played in A Death in the Gunj) would have imbued Dan with a kind of divine glow.

Varun Dhawan keeps Dan just this side of ordinary.

As if using his own black-outs with the character as a snorkel, Dhawan pits Dan in that great movie tradition of the verbally inchoate crusader.

When he walks with that ungainly gait, he seems to be walking for every crankmeister not blessed with natural poise.

Hopeless with poetry, Dan also naively believes that if you follow the rulebook to its last page, the desired results are waiting for you: It is within his nature to wear his bike helmet immediately after he has swiped his card at an ATM booth.

He draws his idealism from the same pool as Rajkumar Rao's Newton, but the big difference is that Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar never make him a spiritual spokesperson for our times (If this was a Raju Hirani film, we would even have people up on the screen prompting us to cry for Dan).

And if you're one of those murmuring about why Dan's caring for Shuili wasn't preceded by any character foreshadowing, you're missing the point.

It isn't important to know if Dan pays his dues to every blind beggar on the street: Only a hack artist would go out of his way to make his character's goodness so rounded.

Dan and Newton may play in the same championship of idealism, but Dan being Dan will only get one shot at the title -- and that's what makes his commitment to that chance seem both plausible and magical.

A big part of October's charm is in its taking of a cinematic tragedy and presenting to us how we may experience it in real life.

The doctors (headed by Ashish Ghosh's Dr Ghosh: probably the finest doctor character written for the Indian screen) have a vocabulary when talking to each other, and they strive hard to make it intelligible to Shuili's relatives.

We watch the doctors faced with the mammoth task of both softening the unpleasant truths and yet making sure that depression doesn't give way to grand hope.

In a conventional tragedy, we would have only learned the impact of the doctor's statements on the relatives. Here we are also shown how the doctors struggle through the process.

And they are all struggling: Shuili's mother; her pesky uncle who isn't entirely wrong in asking for the plug to be removed; her siblings who have difficulty with expressing their sentiments in Hindi; and Shuili's colleagues who are ridden with the twinge that they are not doing enough for her.

It's perhaps only Dan who's having it easy.

He is so light because he doesn't know the rules of practicality, or the conventions of feelings: The connection he senses is enough to power his fool's dare.

And as the movie takes off, we realise that Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi are in on this dare too: They are playing without safety nets and trusting you to respond fully.

At the start of October, when Dan's senior at the hotel is reprimanding him, the senior throws at our man a question: 'Why do you think Ammonia and Bleach are never kept together?'

Shuili knows the answer. And as she utters something about toxic chloramine vapours, the senior jumps at it, likening Dan and Shuili to Ammonia and Bleach respectively, and why they may never mix well together.

It's another play of metaphors, and Dan is caught in the web.

His true strength, however, is that he doesn't know the answer; that he knows better.

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Sreehari Nair