Island City: An Absorbing Anthology

Sonali Ghosh Sen

Island City is a movie which will resonate with every single soul who has resided in an urban concrete jungle

Island City is a movie of layers – of technology and humans, of alienation and belonging, of communication and detachment. It is an island of emotions, both tragic and replete with dark humour. The three stories are connected by a feeling of the butterfly effect, where orderly, ordinary lives will twirl out of order, often in surprising ways.

Debutant director Ruchika Oberoi catches your attention with the first story – Fun Committee. Here we have Systematic Statistics, a company that measures its human employees as mere numbers and cogs and is the anti-hero to its actual human counterpart, Suyash Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak). It’s almost a dystopian tale on corporate life – where there is more communication with technology than with other people. The office cubicle is the island that each dweller occupies, and to get Chaturvedi out of this self-enclosed shell, the Fun Committee decrees that he go out to enjoy himself in a shopping mall.

The mall with all its colours is as sterile as Chaturvedi’s life, and it gives little in terms of enjoyment or even happiness to Pathak’s character when an exchange of envelopes (in a Roald Dahl-like twist) changes the office drone’s life. The tagline for his company is orderliness, organisation and obedience and he fulfils it to its very tragic end. The world of the Fun Committee is clinical and white, where even the bursts of colour intrude and oppress. The Fun Committee’s soul is like being in Disneyland in Nazi Germany – a joker caught on camera here is as menacing as a child’s nightmare and a happy song can torment rather than uplift your soul. Dialogue is spare, and sly wit is brought in to mechanical broadcasts. The camera almost self-consciously keeps people out of the frame, where technology is the minder to the most mundane – getting up in the morning, bringing food and maybe even fun in people’s lives.

Small ripples like envelopes switched during the course of a fish pedicure can alter the course of a story, and this can be seen in the next one too, where a former employee caught unwillingly in the aftermath of the first story lies in a coma and his family gets a sense of reprieve instead of grief. Anil Joshi banned entertainment from his family’s lives, which includes their favourite TV programmes. His being in the hospital gives them the chance to be voyeuristically part of Puroshattam, a TV series whose lead actor becomes really the surrogate image of the ideal father, son and wife that Joshi has not been. The family finds freedom through Puroshattam and the director opens out the frame a little to glimpse more of the Island City, still self-contained yet allowing more interaction of the outside with the inner world. Technology again becomes a minder, but this time slowly and insidiously, a replacement to familial feelings. Puroshattam is the mirror that the middle class family finds solace in, something their biscuit-chomping neighbours or doctors in white coats can’t give them. Real life begins to imitate reel life and when the time comes to decide between the two, the story takes on an interesting twist. The colours are brighter; the world is warmer, and the humour even darker. The pace is slow, and there is the rhythm of ordinary life, full of children and clothes and food, yet the alienation is seen through the stoic silences, the interrupted conversation of the protagonists, the wife (Amruta Subhash) and the mother (Uttara Baokar).The director, with a completely different mise-en-scene from the first story, deftly weaves in the idea from the first, without losing its freshness.

The third story, “Contact”, is when the city breaches the island with the noise of bulldozers and motorcycles’ roar and constant chatter on mobile phones. Amidst all this is Aarti (Tanishtha Chatterjee) in her island of invisibility, tied to a fiancé she doesn’t want, in an apartment where she doesn’t get the privacy she wants and a job she just goes mechanically to. When she does voice her protest it goes unheard in the sea of noise. That’s when an old-fashioned love letter finds her, the contact she needed in this faceless city. In this segment, you finally get a glimpse of Mumbai – the alleys, the trains, the houses. This is the most ’real’ of the three stories and yet technology remains in the background, controlling lives, even the most human feeling of all, love. This is a story where you feel the claustrophobia of a crowd even in a one-room apartment, yet the island of detachment of every character makes you feel that only machines have the answer they seek.

Island City walks the tightrope of being refreshing without being trite. Its protagonists are so relatable because the artists are in fine fettle, whether it is Pathak or Chatterjee or Subhash.  The movie takes a fresh look at a city we have seen in Bollywood film after film, and yet manages to make it everycity – a geographically ambiguous island of people. It mines compassion and empathy and love in characters who are not necessarily sympathetic. It makes you fall in love with visual storytelling. Not once, not twice, but three times over.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2016