October: Transcending Cynicism

The viewer lowers their cynical guard once they understand Dan’s radical optimism which is so wonderfully portrayed by Varun Dhawan
October: Transcending Cynicism

October is a 2018 Hindi drama written by the acclaimed Juhi Chaturvedi and directed by Shoojit Sircar. It follows Dan (Varun Dhawan), a young hotel management intern, as he navigates a life of apathy, indifference, and solitude.

Dan starts off as a broken, chaotic man. Bitter and cold to his friends and colleagues, Dan has ambition but lacks discipline. It's soon revealed that he finds no meaning or fulfilment from his tedious, repetitive job. Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) is Dan's colleague, whom he barely notices. With her warm and friendly demeanour, Shiuli fits well into the orderly luxury of her workplace. There's a brief exchange between her and Dan that lays bare their characters' ethos. Shiuli finds her favourite jasmine flowers lying on the floor next to a slacking Dan. He says "I didn't drop them." She says "you could have still picked them up."

Tragedy strikes, as Shiuli gets into an accident that leaves her comatose. Her mother Vidya struggles to cope when Dan steps in as an unlikely helping hand. Dan devotes himself to taking care of Shiuli when he learns that her last words were "Where is Dan?". Dan feels responsible and places great meaning on her "dying words". As Dan learns more about Shiuli, his empty romanticisation of her tragedy starts to change.

Dan is a difficult protagonist, but we root for him because his actions soon reveal a new self, one of strange innocence and childlike curiosity. His unconditional empathy for Shiuli invokes the viewer's cynicism: "Why is he really doing this?".

But Dan overcomes those doubts by being sincere to a fault. From a passing curiosity to an unhealthy obsession, Dan's fixation is revealed to be a genuine concern for Shiuli and her family's well-being.  The viewer lowers their cynical guard once they understand Dan's radical optimism. Dan's selfless yet self-destructive convictions constitute an unlikely philosophy and its portrayal is uncompromisingly sober.

In his book Man's Search for Meaning, Austrian philosopher Viktor Frankl says, "the more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualises himself." Dan exemplifies this spirit by being there for Shiuli and her family. He gives them his time, energy, warmth, and strength. Dan soon learns he owes such commitment to himself as well. We see him pull himself together and become a man of stronger spirit. Frankl calls this the self-transcendence of human existence as the key to self-actualisation.

Dan's growth is contextualised in a microcosm full of lively characters. His antics bounce off even the less prominent ones, like the nurse, Shiuli's siblings, or his extremely tolerant roommates. Dan's tough supervisor Asthana is especially memorable. The most impactful in Dan's journey is Vidya Iyer, Shiuli's mother. Gitanjali Rao delivers a strong and vulnerable performance as Vidya. Even in her grief, Vidya remains non-judgemental and emotionally resonant to Dan. This strange, sweet relationship is undoubtedly the film's highlight. It is through Vidya that Dan learns to properly commemorate Shiuli by overcoming his obsessive delusions. He is able to honour and see Shiuli for her life full of vitality and kindness. This is wonderfully symbolised by Dan taking the jasmine tree with him.

Even though she's bedridden and immobile for the bulk of her screen time, Shiuli remains the moral core of the story. In her brief initial appearances, Shiuli displays an 'everyday virtue' about her. The viewer will especially treasure these quirks upon a re-watch, once they know her terrible fate. Along with Dan, we discover her life through the lives she touched. Juhi Chaturvedi's writing carefully treads this line without making Shiuli a 'Manic Pixie Dying Girl' or a simple prop for Dan's redemption. We don't get a chance to see who Shiuli really was, but we experience her absence deeply. This melancholic note of her memory is October's takeaway.

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