Very little actually happens in October. When a freak accident leaves 20 year old Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) in coma, her colleague Dan (Varun Dhawan) is greatly affected by it. They aren't into each other, not by a mile. Their personalities are far from compatible. She's disciplined, straightforward, almost bland. He's sensitive, volatile and rather odd. But what may appear as an Imtiaz Ali-esque narrative on the surface is a vividly original film that never conforms to the usual dose of intemperance that Bollywood provides us.
Slow-burn is not a word I fancy, but I can't think of another to describe October. This is a film that steadily immerses you into its highly textured world. Shoojit Sircar is never afraid of silence. Juhi Chaturvedi's brave screenplay never submits to melodrama. Together they paint a sublime portrait of grief and unconditional affection. As Shiuli falls, you also get a sense of Dan falling along, but her condition helps him find purpose.
He's astonished by how those around him aren't as affected. They're equally surprised, wondering why he cares so much. The makers creates a sharp juxtaposition between Dan's workplace – a hotel and the hospital where Shiuli is admitted. What might be an escape for one is an ordeal for another. The context applies to both the places, and Avik Mukhopadhyay's stunning camerawork makes the experience transportive. He creates a sense of urgency even in the placid hours spent in waiting rooms. As Dan waves his hand above a sedated Shiuli's face, I heard myself whisper – "Dan, what are you doing? Stop it."
Sircar has the ability to find humour in the most unassuming situations and these moments provide October with heft. Watch out for the sweet exchanges between Dan and Sister Grace, Shiuli's nurse. Their relationship begins with annoyance, before transcending into much more poignant conversations.
October is heavily reliant on its performances, and no one falters. Banita Sandhu, blessed with the most expressive eyes, is pitch-perfect as Shiuli. She remains an unsolved mystery throughout. She spends most of her screentime in coma, but there's a impressive consistency in that too, for which the credit also goes to the actor's makeup team. Gitanjali Rao creates a character with flesh-and-blood. She's splendid in a role that provides her both breadth and depth. Starting off as resolute, you see Vidya Iyer chipping away as time passes. And at the centre of it all is Varun Dhawan. Here he's stripped of all the inherent vivacity he possesses. Minutes into the film I'd forgotten I was watching him. The boyish charm is still intact but controlled. The performance is grounded in real emotions, and the actor delivers the performance of his career, ranging from thoughtful to impulsive, irritable to likeable within seconds. Towards the inevitable end, as a tear trickles from Dhawan's eye, you see the actor but you also don't. We've seen him cry innumerable times on screen, but this isn't Dhawan crying, it's Dan.
Like the film, Shantanu Moitra's melancholic score never adheres to the overripe sensibilities of Hindi cinema. There aren't any violins blaring, instead it plays out like the musical equivalent of a gentle breeze. Sircar has enough faith in the audience to understand the emotion, which is particularly refreshing. October is a film that needs to be felt. It's an examination of attachment and emotion. This is the story of Dan and Shiuli but also yours and mine. It's the story of us all.
It's also a haunting confrontation of our mortality. Just like the fragrance of a shiuli, the film permeates itself slowly. If you're patient enough, it's wholly rewarding. The ending is sad but I didn't feel despondent. There's a lot of hope in the last shot. If the film teaches you something, it's that hope can be silly and wishful, but it also asks a perennial question: what are we, without hope?
You can watch October on Amazon Prime Video.