If someone asks Dan who he is to the young comatose woman, waiting on her hospital bed for imminent death (or a miraculous revival) to happen, he might say, “I am her final word.” The slightness of that definition doesn’t deter him from being her diligent companion in what might be her final days, as though they were close to each other all their life.
October is centered on this rather strange and inexplicable relationship between a troubled young man and a woman in a persistent vegetative state. Like all good films, it makes you see beyond what is on screen, and becomes a platform for a greater reflection on life and the passage of time. It talks to you about death – what it does to the living. Occasionally, the film gives in to sentimentality, but any hiccups there might be are overshadowed by the positives: Shantanu Moitra’s background score, for one. It, like a blanket, hugs you even when you barely notice it. The film unfolds slowly, meditatively, like the melancholic evenings you spend inside a hospital ward by the bed of a person for whom life looks like a bleak sight. What would you do with all those words you never said when the person was awake? Where would you dispose them?
Written by Juhi Chaturvedi and directed by Shoojit Sircar, October is a different kind of Talk To Her – a gentler, less selfish film with a firm identity of its own. The woman, a 20-year-old Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) barely knows of Dan’s presence in her hospital room, or his devotion to her.
Watching October is also an exercise in understanding Dan, the disgruntled, yet profoundly sensitive young man that he is. In the initial sequences, set inside the Delhi five-star hotel where Dan works as a management trainee, you see the employees carrying on with their their routine jobs. It’s about ordinariness. He is introduced unceremoniously, in one of many brief shots of employees arriving at the hotel for daily duty.
He is an underdog – an under achiever who is known for his anger issues. While his fellow trainees have been promoted to more important duties, he continues to slog in laundry, room cleaning and even fly swatting at the hotel lobby. He seems to have some friends, but it’s hard to say if hje is close to them. In a later scene, he knocks on his apartment door to find his roommate, a colleague, with another co-worker, a woman. “You could have told me,” he tells them. She replies, “We never hid it.” She is probably right. At the hotel, he rarely pays attention. He barely notices Shiuli although she is her co-worker. Unlike him, she is a favorite of the management of the hotel, deemed more capable and diligent. But the day she slips and falls from the third floor of the hotel, and goes into a coma, things change. It gives Dan’s lacklustre life a purpose, something for him to be fixated with. After all, the words that she uttered just before the fall were, “Where is Dan?”
From this point, the film becomes entirely from the perspective of Dan. We can sense initial curiosity about her condition growing into affection. The gaps between his hospital visits shorten. He walks into her ward, stands there quietly looking at her, tries his little tricks (moving his palm in front of her cold eyes to see if the pupils are responding) and leaves. Does he expect her to return the affection someday? It’s hard to say. The day her pupils move for the first time, he asks the doctor to ask her if she knows Dan, and when her siblings decorate the room with family pictures, he gets pint-sized photographs of his and sticks them to her bed, right on her eye level.
His antics are as intriguing as they are disturbing. Isn’t this intrusion, you could ask. But you could also see it differently. He is volunteering to be in the arc of grief that her death would leave behind. The beautiful final sequence establishes that. He lets the tragedy to destroy him, and to rebuild him.
Juhi Chaturvedi writes scenes as though they are diary entries, with a sensitivity that is unusual for Bollywood cinema. She sketches out Dan’s failings, his confusions, his moments of glee when Shiuli treats him ‘special’, the imaginary world he creates where she effortlessly responds to him. Watch the scene where Dan’s mother visits Shiuli at the hospital, and has a little chat with her mom. Iyer says how Dan has been a pillar of strength for her all along, and his mom replies in a sombre tone about Dan being absent from her life. In a few lines, Chaturvedi creates a portrait of children as adults who are strangers to the parents. She gives every character their moments of expression. For instance, the nurse (Nimmy Raphael) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Dan. Would a different screenwriter have written such a moving, delineated sketch for a minor character, a nurse whom we almost always think about as a collective?
The feat that Chaturvedi and Sircar pull off isn’t small. It isn’t easy to keep a film going through scenes of similar nature, without losing the momentum, while being emotionally consistent and never slipping out of those melancholic chords. October keeps the audience engaged. Avik Mukherjee’s visuals are strikingly charming. Sometimes, he pans to the sky outside the hospital window, of the change in seasons from winter to summer to autumn when Shiuli’s favorite tree is full of flowers. The lighting and the contrast in colours are artful and restrained. Particularly impressive is one shot of Dan carrying an immobile Shiuli back to her bed. It is deeply sensual and romantic.
The film has a soundscape which is so delicate and subtle. It lets you listen to the sounds that are audible only when you have rolled down the blinds and severed off the outside world, those that usually get lost in the chaos of life. Like the gentle sound of coffee pouring into a ceramic cup as Vidya Iyer speaks on the phone.
October is Varun’s Lootera, a film that exposes his lesser known side. In several scenes, he is a solo performer. The camera revolves around him, or is fixed on him. The young actor expresses Dan’s muddled thoughts vividly, without making it look as though he is doing anything. He stares, gulps down words, breaks into a little smile when no one is watching, and walks as though he is a lost child. If he was not in his element in Badlapur, he is perfectly in character here. An equally powerful performer is Geetanjali Rao, the famed animator-artiste in her rare acting venture. She makes motherly grief and loneliness look lifelike, as though the feelings could be touched and felt. And she has an arresting screen presence.
October is a sublime film that makes you sit up and take notice, reflect, understand, and perhaps even a little surprised, because the characters aren’t practical enough. They don’t mind their business or move on as it should be. Isn’t cinema also about undefinable personal bonds and people who do unreasonable things?