October: The season of life
October feels like an O. Henry story. It has a fragile tenderness about it, a delicate sense of tragedy, but always hope, charming hope infusing the very heart of the narrative.
Where is Dan?
It is a small throwaway question by a doe-eyed girl called Shiuli, just before she plunges from a hotel balcony, that propels Danish ‘Dan’ Walia (Varun Dhawan), a reluctant hotel management trainee going mostly by the name tag “understudy,” into an unlikely knight in shining armour.
Before we know, where is Dan, we get a glimpse of Who is Dan. Dan is that friend in the group who is stubborn, a trifle petulant, all boy, and a bit of a prankster. He is the boy who is just biding his time to do something big, but not really taking any concrete actions to do so. He is self-absorbed and certainly doesn’t think hard work and dedication has any merit, yet he is charming in his own way and draws a smile even when he is making mistakes, albeit never learning from them. That’s why friends close ranks in defending him, and bosses tolerate him.
Shiuli (Banita Sandhu), on the other hand, is quiet, shy, pretty and efficient, the understudy who will surely be promoted to a bigger role in the hotel hierarchy. While Dan is all bluster and smart mouth and noise, Shiuli is his counterbalance — silent, compassionate and patient.
In October, we discover this not through dialogues, but through the rhythms of ordinary life. The camera remains detached, the interaction between Shiuli and Dan is barely there, but we still get a friendly, witty, intimate look at a hotel’s life and the life of its employees. We know Dan is unhappy about his work, but Shiuli remains a mystery. The only time even her patience wears off is when Dan knocks off a bowl of “Shiuli” (Night Jasmine) flowers which she had kept carefully in the employee’s room.
So, when Shiuli is wheeled off comatose to the hospital, after the aforementioned question, Dan is just one of the many in her group, who use the one hospital pass the hotel staff has to visit her. But unlike the others, who move on with their life after a few days, Dan unexpectedly stays.
Why does he feel affected by this tragedy of a girl he hardly knows is something Dan cannot answer, but it taps in him an unexpected tenderness and compassion that surprises even his closest friends. When one of them asks why he is so affected by the accident, his reply is how can they remain so unaffected by it.
The use of the hotel and the hospital as two focal points in the film is deliberate, as they almost mirror the two protagonists — a life stilled with only beeps of the monitor, laboured breath and silence is the only presence of existence for Shiuli, while at the hotel, Dan’s life goes on in transit, overstaying his welcome with his absences and late arrivals and fights, as his life gets inextricably linked with Shiuli’s family and her life. And eventually to love.
This love story unfolds not through a dream sequence in the Alps or even melodramatic epiphanies. It builds slowly, like the hum of the motorcycle on a foggy December night, the beeping of a heart monitor...these are sounds we have heard and stored in our memories.
Avik Mukhopadhyay’s cinematography keeps pace with this slow blooming of love and empathy, of sorrow and hope. The camera focuses on the small things, to make October’s world come to life. Whether it is a conversation of Dan with a nurse on marriage, the camera focuses on the way Dan plays the wheelchair like he is doing a slow-mo wheelie, or the way the camera frames the protagonists in a crucial scene, where just the shutting of a door signifies the end of the first act, or Dan, fast asleep in the hotel laundry room, shows you the utter exhaustion of a caregiver. When watching October, you are both spectator and participant. You are part of the Iyer family waiting to make decisions, you are inside the home of the Iyers where sorrow has walked in furtively, unnoticed. And you are with Dan and Shiuli as they tentatively build an unspoken companionship.
Dhawan channels all of Dan’s stubbornness, his naïveté, his sense of doggedness, into trying to save a life and his love. He sheds his stardom for the role of a confused 21-year-old and succeeds. Sandhu, on the other hand, has the more difficult role, where her big, limpid eyes speak when her body and face can’t. Gitanjali Rao as Shiuli’s mother plays her role with grace, dignity, and matches Dan’s hope with a maturity of her own.
Juhi Chaturvedi, the writer, writes with sensitivity and the sense of having experienced this world. She seems to unerringly know the way life is put on pause when a loved one is in hospital, the hospital rituals, the sense of kinship that develops between those in the waiting room and the staff. While director Shoojit Sircar knows how to play these moments for drama, it doesn’t feel like drama, just life.
October feels like an O. Henry story. It has a fragile tenderness about it, a delicate sense of tragedy, but always hope, charming hope infusing the very heart of the narrative. The Night Jasmine or Shiuli is a delicate fragile flower that blooms in October. And in the movie, Shiuli, is a metaphor for the impermanence of life, for compassion, for unconditional love and sacrifice.
The film speaks through its silences, that talk about ordinary lives and extraordinary acts of love, that gives us a glimpse into a kinder, gentler, world, as we walk out of the theatre into a more practical, cynical one.