31st October Movie Review: Wake Me Up When October Ends

Tacky images, terrible dubbing and questionable production design make it hard to take this film about the Sikh riots seriously

Director: Shivaji Lotan Patil

Cast: Soha Ali Khan, Vir Das

Rating: 1.5 stars

31st October (1984) is the day then-PM Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards in the wake of ‘Operation Blue Star’. The date now holds a tenser, if more ghastlier, meaning: the title is an overwrought “survival melodrama” releasing on 21st October (the joke wrote itself), about a fictitious Delhi-based Sikh family’s battle to escape the brutal revenge attacks in the immediate aftermath of her assassination.

Compulsive do-gooder Davinder Singh (Vir Das; begins every phrase with ‘yaara’ and ends it with ‘shabaash’), a blood-pressure patient, wonders how to keep his terrified wife (Soha Ali Khan) and their little children safe.

Compulsive do-gooder Davinder Singh (Vir Das; begins every phrase with ‘yaara’ and ends it with ‘shabaash’), a blood-pressure patient, wonders how to keep his terrified wife (Soha Ali Khan) and their little children safe.

The atmosphere outside is frightening. In a matter of hours, the term ‘sardarji’ acquires a tone of resentment on Hindu tongues; faceless mobs want to burn and murder every body wearing a turban. Those who don’t feel the same are traitors. Now where have we heard this before? It’s 2016, and not much has changed.

31st October

 

Fortunately for the couple, a few good non-partisan men, their longtime friends (Deepraj Rana, Vineet Sharma), decide to help them escape to a safer location in a car. There’s also a parallel and rather moody narrative that appears at will – that of a disillusioned NRI, a cut Surd, being spared for his clean-shaven appearance.

A lot could have been done here, but I could barely get past the terrible dubbing and fractured sound design. There’s a bit of suspense sprinkled around: routine devices like loud door-knocks, noisy mobs and jingoistic policemen.

Vir Das isn’t allowed to converse after a while, given his health condition. This is not a bad thing.

But really, nothing seems to have been cinematically compiled to provide any depth; adults accuse and speak to one another as if they’re in a school play, mouthing the most obvious lines (“These Sardars had it coming, boss!”) Vir Das isn’t allowed to converse after a while, given his health condition. This is not a bad thing.

Most of the film is shot at night, when the rage of vengeful riotous gangs is palpable. Yet, the images are tacky, and it almost seems like none of the actors’ real voices have been used. When Delhi is established at the beginning of the film, we’re shown tidbits of the capital at dawn – sweepers going about their work, but why slow-motion? Why do filmmakers do this? What is the point of slowing down stock shots? I tend to get wary of any film that messes with frame rates for the heck of it. That’s usually an ominous sign. It’s usually the sign of B-movie sensibilities.

Most of the film is shot at night, when the rage of vengeful riotous gangs is palpable. Yet, the images are tacky, and it almost seems like none of the actors’ real voices have been used.

Then there’s the questionable production design. We see a poster of the Jackie Shroff-Rajnikanth starrer, Uttar Dakshin, early on in the background. Only, it released three years after these riots, in 1987. Even the small pockets of burning fires (Hindi cinema’s favourite city-is-burning imagery) seem to be evenly spaced out and glow with a strategic intensity on dark streets. The mobs, of course, have a life of their own: running just about fast enough to NEVER reach the fleeing family. No frame rate can change this.

There’s one affecting scene towards the end: the wife, who must “behave” like a Hindu in the backseat of the car, muffles her own grief when her young brother-in-law hacked to death at her window. She wants to scream out his name, but can’t; her identity, and life, is at risk.

Then there’s the questionable production design. We see a poster of the Jackie Shroff-Rajnikanth starrer, Uttar Dakshin, early on in the background. Only, it released three years after these riots, in 1987.

In any other scenario or film, this would have merited far more attention. Unfortunately, the same message has been drilled into our heads umpteen times over by now. If you missed the cyclic violence, there are five verbose slates in the end about why this film was made. Long sentences, too. And Vir Das just can’t stop wheezing.

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