There’s very little that you can say about Mumbai which is not a cliché. The pace of this commercial capital is oppressive. We know that. It is hard to relish solitude in its cramped rooms and suffocating chawls. Suketu Mehta told us that. Oh, and the city supposedly never sleeps. That next hoarding would like us to still believe that. Island City, though, never once panders to these trite banalities. Ruchika Oberoi’s film is unmistakably about urban alienation – there is that ‘island’ in its title – but what the film discovers is so novel, so refreshing, that you finally find redemption in claustrophobia.
The first of the film’s three chapters, ‘Fun Committee’, begins with Suyash Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak) waking up to a talking alarm. His solitary life is otherwise quiet. The office where he works, Systemic Statistics, banks on its alliterations for intimidation. Their tag line – ‘Fun, Frolic and Festivity’ – starkly differs from their real motto – ‘Organisation, Obedience, Orderliness’. One morning, all computers in his office collectively announce that the company’s Fun Committee has chosen Suyash for a day of mandatory merriment. Grudgingly, Suyash enters a mall and is given soft toys and a fish pedicure. There is little chance that you won’t crack up when you see Pathak licking a lollipop on a merry-go-round. You know that things will go south, but when they do, there’s shock, no dismay. For lonely men, vapid entertainment can be the last straw, and for Suyash, no authority is as oppressive as fun.
Gratification often lies in an elsewhere. In ‘Ghost in the Machine’, the film’s second segment, it comes in the form of a television. When Anil Joshi (Bhushan Vikas) finds himself in a coma, his wife Sarita (Amruta Subhash) and his mother Ajji (Uttara Baokar) bring home a flat-screen TV. Anil, a staunch patriarch, had forbidden this joy in his household, and in the absence of his dominance, his family finds solace in a seemingly sappy soap opera called ‘Purushottam’. In what is unmistakably Island City’s most compelling and moving chapter, Subhash and Baokar are a delight to watch. They inch their way to freedom. As visitors pour in with condolences, Baokar measures time with the few biscuits they eat. TV needs to be watched, and she and Subhash really do need to be applauded.
Contact, the film’s last chapter, belongs to Tannishta Chatterjee. A worker in a printing press, her Aarti is sullen, and as her fiancée Jignesh (Chandan Roy Sanyal) points out, she might be entirely joyless. A mystery love letter changes that. Staying in a single room with her family, she reads these declarations of love with the torch of her mobile phone. The cure for loneliness isn’t always companionship. Validation can suffice. Chatterjee hits perfectly those notes of desperate isolation.
Here in India, we usually never do black humour. There’s little darkness to be found in our comedy. Our laughs are often sanitised and our jokes are obvious. Island City might not laugh at death, but it definitely smirks at it. The film never wallows in its tragedy. There’s never any self-pity to be found in its protagonists. The movie’s pleasures are almost guilty. You really ought not to chuckle, but you can’t help yourself. The three stories that make up this film are so craftily narrated that you readily buy into the film’s absurdities. The film’s plots allow, even invite, a certain preposterousness. Not since LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) have disparate narratives been tied together so carefully.
If one were nitpicking, one could say that ‘Contact’ was less engaging than ‘Fun Committee’ or that ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ was the most assured of the three segments. But any such niggles would only dampen the praise that this rich film deserves. Ruchika Oberoi is a talent that deserves every ovation she gets. She has finally answered the riddle. We now know where all the lonely come from.