HOW MUCH DO YOU REALLY CARE? ON THE MODERN HUMANIST CLASSIC OCTOBER (2018)

OCTOBER (2018)

CAST: VARUN DHAWAN, BANITA SANDHU, GEETANJALI RAO etc .

DIRECTION : SHOOJIT SIRCAR.

This one is a particularly heartwarming offering to a mass audience that should learn to trust its instincts for sharing compassion with everyone near and far, no matter how dire the consequences. OCTOBER (2018) is way afar from trite formulas of filmmaking as has been the case with celebrated director Shoojit Sircar’s oeuvre consisting of realistic, profoundly thoughtful, genre defying yet extremely entertaining ones like VICKY DONOR (2012) and PIKU (2015).Whatever humour, pathos, sense of understanding there is to our diurnal rhythms that a lesser filmmaker would sidestep for filmic modulations, he retains with such flair that it achieves a refreshing sensibility. In fact, I have lost count of the times I have watched Piku and reveled in its father-daughter bond and the road trip scenario that was unlike any other simply for the fact that every line, conversation and situation was straight out of the everyday. Quirks and fits of human behavior always find a sublime representation in his worldviews and projection. It goes without saying, however, that in the writing capabilities of his regular collaborator JUHI CHATURVEDI, he finds a beacon of imaginative rejuvenation who has emerged as one of the most original voices of cinema in modern times. OCTOBER is no different though it’s thoroughly sombre. Where it’s different is in the projection of protagonist Dan (a winsome Varun Dhawan) as a young man with a mind of his own.

He’s not a rebel without a cause as we discover in the course of the film and in a culture of toxic masculinity especially rampant in the capital city of Delhi and its sorrounding National Capital Region (NCR) where it is set, he’s an exemplar. But again this has none of the heroics of formula. All of 21 or 22 as portrayed here, he is training in the hospitality industry which entails a rigorous exercise as one has to dabble in multiple jobs from attending guests at the reception, tending to laundry, whipping up exclusive culinary delights to even cleaning washrooms and waitressing. Really in a country where many of these jobs have strict class based divisions, the hotel business comes as a great leveler, breaking away with any overarching ego or smug self confidence for the individual. Dan has got accustomed to its rhythms yet his short temper costs him many opportunities as he is able to see through many of the inherent hypocrisies of his workplace, especially regarding some of the monied, errant guests who frequent the five star hotel. He’s also miffed at his boss for relegating him to cleaning toilets. As I said, this is a class based issue which is prevalent everywhere and especially here. So the writing maintains that subtle vein of social consciousness without explicitly spelling it out. I am reminded of two scenes from Piku where Rana ( the great Irfan Khan), the owner of the cab company that Piku orders her rides from, arrives to take her and her father on their trip to Kolkata from Delhi in the absence of a driver coming to fetch them in the early morning hours of winter. He is quick to respond when he is mistaken for the driver by Bhaskor ( legendary Amitabh Bachchan). At another, he refuses to start driving as the house servant who’s accompanying them is seated next to him in the front seat and quickly Piku takes over. Now these are just subtle hints and I’m sure they are pretty universal actions. Dan is restless, has a keen sense of right and wrong and is quite attuned to ironies of the hospitality business. It’s not another 9 to 5 job for him but his short fuse hinders his talent. He is young and so has all the impulses that come with his age. Sircar and his cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay capture the goings on inside the premises of the hotel ( the plush Radisson Blu, Dwarka here) with precision and his focus on little moments outside where Dan and his colleagues share tea and snacks at a roadside stall or order pizza and make do with Maggie for dinner at their flat are au natural, ensuring to uphold the modest but sufficient means with which they have to manage to make ends meet.

They are at an important point of their challenging career prospects and these touches of representation give us a peek into the way the industry functions and how integral it is for the employees to maintain decorum to survive. It’s not the shine and sparkle of the five star life but the toil and extra hours and efforts that make it an uphill task. The presentation here is as matter of fact as it is for insiders of the hospitality boom. As I write this, I am watching a young employee get the breakfast table ready at the hotel situated next to my apartment. It’s clockwork precision as I see it.

*****

The profoundly humanist core of Dan and this film then unravels as one of the brightest trainees Shiuli (debutante BANITA SANDHU), who is never shown directly conversing with Dan except for the instance of a polite ‘thank you’ to him when he repairs her car, meets with sudden tragedy. Her life hangs in the balance owing to the severity of the situation and her last words before falling from the balcony of the hotel’s third floor while ringing in an occasion are, “where’s Dan?”

This leads the young man on a journey of self evaluation from where he had never really veered in the initial minutes. We knew his heart was always in the right place but the sacrifices he makes further to abide by his intrinsic nature and conscience is stellar as he feels he holds a responsibility to look after Shiuli in the hospital. His anger and a lack of concrete direction owing to it is gradually sublimated by patience and forbearance. ‘Where’s Dan?’ becomes a point of profundity for him as this anonymous colleague remembered him for the last time before she met with almost death. Surely her life meant something more than the designation of a fellow trainee and the suddenness of it all is also to be taken into consideration. Sircar and Chaturvedi so beautifully direct this moral idea of disseminating compassion to others that we follow Dan’s trajectory with an inward look at our own standards of going the extra mile, even for our kindred. As my experience informs me, Dan may sound like one among millions and he may be but this world is full of such selfless individuals, age and gender no bar, both of which he imputes as per the usual, supposed expectations. It’s not his responsibility per se as his colleagues have to settle to usher in a new day at the job but he breaks away from the clutter. Chances are he would have done the same even if Shiuli hadn’t asked for him.

Geetanjali Rao, a theatre veteran and ace animator who has been feted at Cannes and other national and international platforms, internalizes her part as the stoic, mild mannered, grieving mother who finds her unusual support system in the boy who is decades younger than her but is undeterred in his principled dedication. Her male relative, on the other hand, would prefer to let Shiuli be off life support and has the insensitivity of a typical member outside the immediate family fold . This is no one- off cause for him or some mild awakening for the present moment ; he has always been like this and he naturally gets intertwined in the private world of Shiuli’s family without being intrusive. We get to see how the already widowed Vidya Iyer has to juggle her job as a professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, look after her two teenage children and bear the expenses and mental toll that come with Shiuli’s deteoriating condition six months after the accident as she is in a comatose state. In such a situation, it helps that Dan visits every evening after his hotel shift and looks after many minute details, sometimes checking every little look by a staff member down to the amount of urine passed by Shiuli, implying that she is conscious and enquiring about the same to the nurse in charge. These are dabbed in humour as when the nurse asks him if he has a job and when his colleague and roommate tells him that he has been to the ICU twice in his life: today and yesterday. But these are matter of fact and the counterpoint to them is when the nurse opens up to him about the fact that she has not got married as nobody trusts nurses owing to their line of work. I can say with some experience of my own that without their tireless efforts and lack of ego, a hospital wouldn’t practically function. They are indispensable to the healthcare ecosystem. Another beautiful moment is when Dan helps a concerned and financially strapped visitor to procure a corollary of a medicine that the hospital chemist refuses to give him. He has gained hands-on knowledge by observing proceedings within the hospital and hence comes to his aid. This intrinsic core of hospitality beyond mere lip service is what he believes in. You may wonder if he is beginning to sound like a helicopter guardian but the script is miles apart from any of those trappings. You have to watch it to know what I mean.

*****

This mix of people who are easily weary and sometimes frustrated in their respective workplaces is a sensible parallel to the void that Dan himself feels as a trainee. The work – life balance and conflicts inherent in this dynamic is brought to the fore. A crucial and direct point is addressed in the scene where Dan finally asks his colleagues as to how they can be so unaffected to which one of them replies that they can’t relinquish work. As I told you, the views are realistic, practical and there’s acknowledgement on both sides. So even as Dan – the essential lone ranger who makes us anticipate a lonely family backstory especially evident in the one scene centring on him and his mother who is not really appreciative of his decisions – gets erratic and is fired from his job, he feels a sense of liberation that he can now commit his time to wishing for a miracle for Shiuli by dint of hope and care. Everybody around him realizes the strength of this young person and the thing is he, himself, doesn’t make a hue and cry out of it. To some and most of the populace, he will come across as irrational, attempting to prove a point. To them, his understanding of the delicate threads that bind us in life and in difficult situations is not that different from their own. It’s only that they cannot afford to make the compromise. After all, one person alone can bring in a change.

ISHA CHATURVEDI as Ishani, SAHIL VEDOLIYAA as Manjeet, both portraying Dan’s friends and hotel management colleagues, are absolutely natural as is PRATEEK KAPOOR as Mr. Asthana, the manager who is vexed and captivated by his unconventional approach to life when everybody else would be content being left to their own devices. Their important presence adds perspectives of the everyday to this script.

That said, the raw and affable nature of VARUN ‘s performance is a highlight. His innocence and earnestness make us believe in the very idea of basic humanity while BANITA SANDHU, with no dialogues and not much physical mobility, conveys the pain of her state astutely. She internalizes her part as a young girl clearly in throes of death with tact. It’s a tricky choice for a debut role but she is utterly realistic. In fact her omnipresence and her antecedents as regards her unusual name and the month from which the film derives its title from guides it.

There is a silence to OCTOBER that befits its tale of personal unravelings and Avik, the cinematographer and editor CHANDRASHEKHAR PRAJAPATI find passages of solitude in the parts in Himachal where Dan finds employment as a resort manager and in the muffled, resonant tragedy of the inevitable climax.

Shantanu Moitra’s musical score warms our hearts. It’s beautiful, deeply contemplative and a learning lesson for the younger demographic that puts itself first. Humanity has hardly appeared on our screens with such attention to detail in a long time. It’s not merely a cinematic experience then but an approximation of our lives measured in endeavors. Sometimes the kindness of strangers goes a long way in reinstating our lust for life. That is how OCTOBER impacted me.

******

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