Director: Shoojit Sircar
Cast: Banita Sandhu, Gitanjali Rao, Varun Dhawan
Shoojit Sircar's new film, October, written by the formidable Juhi Chaturvedi, is a beautifully restrained piece of storytelling that deliberately reflects the unerring functionalism of its two primary spaces: a hotel and a hospital. On the face of it, there could not be two more contradicting expressions of humanity. But these spaces, at some level, are irrevocably connected – by the kind of intrinsic binomial thread that usually connects flawed heroes and super villains. One services the body, and the other, the ego. Both demand a cocktail of customized empathy and controlled detachment from their employees. Both pay strangers to take care of – as opposed to "care for" – strangers. And both are commercial symbols of displacement. Not unlike the seasons that converge in the month of October, their corridors accommodate stories that are yet to reach a destination. Whether it's the chatter of a Sikh family exiting an elevator or a worried brother unable to decipher a prescription, their sounds are always in transit. Like scattered words from disparate letters, they fall upon ears that are trained to edit.
It's therefore both natural and ironic to find a protagonist like Dan (Varun Dhawan) flitting between these two spaces. Dan looks like the kind of boy in a perpetual state of flux. He doesn't belong anywhere. Change is supposed to be his only constant, but it is also his only liability. When we first see him as a disinterested, unfocused intern at Delhi's Radisson hotel, the lilting lobby-piano-music-like background score lends an autopilot-ness to his existential uncertainty. Change the sheets, change the toiletry, change the attitude. He is, for October's opening thirty minutes, a classic Ranbir Kapoor trope: restless, drifting along and increasingly tolerant of his own failings. Everyone, from his flat-mates to his boss and security guards, is either chastising or dismissing him. You sense that he was the class clown, and you also sense that he is subconsciously looking for a situation that helps him relocate his self-worth.
But Dan also looks like the kind of boy who is too curious – in an idealistic movie-hero kind of way – to be good at his job; he can't help but "notice," and have an opinion on, the stories around him. He has no filter while calling out incompetent seniors and arrogant guests. This defeats the purpose of his trade: that of a paid caretaker at a five-star hotel. Conversely, it informs the purpose of his being: that of an unpaid caregiver at a private hospital. When a colleague (Banita Sandhu, as Shiuli Iyer) he barely knows goes into a coma, Dan's professional drawbacks assume the outlier aura of Rajkumar-Hirani-ish pragmatism – his unfurnished simplicity suddenly finds a reason to thrive. He is oddly drawn to her situation – in a manner that invokes an art-house Rockstar equipped with a vegetative Nargis Fakhri. Irrespective of this muted Jordan-like irrationalism, Dan is perhaps not emotionally perceptive enough to recognize another cruel irony: Shiuli, who was great at her job, now has to pay to be taken care of. And, at some point, to be cared for.
Every time we expect the story to "take off" and conform to a tone, any tone, of unconventionality or absoluteness, it stays put – unblinking, circumstantial and brave.
But no matter how many movie references and allegories we may imagine to identify with this journey, Chaturvedi's script consistently maintains a careful distance from Hindi cinema's entitled excesses. Every time we expect the story to "take off" and conform to a tone, any tone, of unconventionality or absoluteness, it stays put – unblinking, circumstantial and brave, like the girl on the hospital bed, and unlike the boy who watches her. The possibilities are endless, and each direction might have been equally valid and poignant. In this context, October remains very personal and frank, and wholly committed to Dan's naïve nature of making mountains out of molehills. Dhawan employs his inherently sheltered outlook to realize the ambiguity of a boy who, like himself, is trying to punch above his weight. D(haw)an is the result.
He surrenders himself to the subjectivity of nobleness in a way that is designed to make us wonder if Dan is, in fact, not only trying to take a sad song and make it better. It makes us wonder if he, unlike the blood-related martyrdom of Shiuli's shattered mother (a wonderful Gitanjali Rao), is actually a survivalist who has latched onto an opportunity to overcompensate for his real-world inaptitude. When we see him in the hospital waiting area politely requesting people to lift their feet so that the cleaner can sweep the floor, he is not only empathizing with a man doing a job he is familiar with but also advocating the elevated status of his importance in a space that has no expectations from him. When he asks his flat-mates – Shiuli's close friends – how they can be so "unaffected" and practical about moving on, it stems from a sense of morality as much as it does from a burst of insecurity: he really has nothing to move on to. He barely believed in his career to begin with. He almost envies them for not just having a life, but also for being able to detach like well-programmed employees.
In the long run, this film might hold a special place in the mind of anyone who has rescued to be rescued. Some call it love, and others call it life. While movies regularly pivot on those who use heartbreak to find passion, October meditates on those who might never discover the difference between the two feelings.
Mirroring the popular template of bad souls searching for redemption through misanthropy, Dan's is a wayward spirit looking for purpose through tragedy. Lost people tend to do that. They choose to boost other battles in order to fight their own; their selflessness stems from a larger sense of selfishness. What makes Dan more compelling, though, is that he comes across as the type of "hero" who wants to be affected for more than just his own evolution. Not as a romantic anomaly or pensive adult, but as a genuine reminder of the fact that grief, despite its unsolicited cacophony and communality, is more of an intensely lonely than desperately private emotion.
In the current scheme of things, in a world where sentiment succumbs to the necessity of definition and tags, Sircar has made something that belongs a little to all of us. The trick is to perhaps allow it to address – change – our derivative outlook of attachment. And to perhaps allow it to operate as an extended sound of Shantanu Moitra's melancholic track.
In the long run, this film might hold a special place in the mind of anyone who has rescued to be rescued. Some call it love, and others call it life. While movies regularly pivot on those who use heartbreak to find passion, October meditates on those who might never discover the difference between the two feelings. And the two spaces that wear these feelings. For, in October, hotels as well as hospitals wear heartbreak as well as passion.