October: Beyond the Shiuli Season
A film that challenges any rating system
When I was around seven or eight, I would wake up early in the morning to steal flowers from the lovely gardens near my house at Shivaji Park in Mumbai. I never got caught possibly because the elders were fast asleep. The house opposite had a tree and the floor of the grassy compound would be covered with a carpet of shiuli flowers. I would gather them all in the skirt of my frock, get home and sit down to make a garland. But by the time the garland was done, the flowers had withered. My passion for collecting shiuli blossoms faded into adolescence till many years later, I watched October with my eyes welling up in tears of nostalgia.
Strangely, the shiuli tree blossoms only in October and the season is very short. It ends before you even realise it and you cannot pluck these flowers off the tree because they fall on the ground and you have to pick them up from the floor. It is a tiny flower with white petals rooted in an orange stem. It is very pretty but also very fragile with a short life. It carries a subtle, sweet fragrance that lingers in the air for some time. Night Jasmine. That is the rough English translation of the flower Shiuli, often used as a name for Bengali girls.
Shoojit Sircar’s October based on Juhi Chatuvedi’s brilliant script is hinged on this flower which is a metaphor for the story, the film and also is the name of the young girl who gets into a critical accident. Shiuli and Dan (Danish Walia) are colleagues, along with others, working as hotel management interns in a starred hotel on the outskirts of Delhi. They are just friends and nothing more. But all the friend interns rally around Dan who is irreverent, irresponsible, casual and carries on with a “I don’t care” attitude even with guests that lands him in trouble every other day. In the end-of-the-year party, Dan does not turn up. He learns of Shiuli’s accident later. Her last question before she falls off the parapet of the terrace is, “Where is Dan?” These three words turn Dan’s life completely upside down as if he has been hit by a tornado.
“This is not a love story” says the teaser of the film. Yes, it is not a love story and yet, it is a love story of a different kind where love grows in a way that changes the very chemistry of Dan’s persona who consciously reduces his life to the lowest common denominator of trying to help in getting Shiuli back into consciousness so that he knows why she had asked that question, “Where is Dan?” October is one of the most poignantly moving love stories anyone has witnessed on the large screen in recent years. It is like the soft-footed walk of someone who is afraid to step into a room he has never stepped into before. Dan is still the irresponsible intern he was before but even at work, he is completely obsessed with how and when Shiuli will wake up to listen to his answer to her question – “Where is Dan?”
Shiuli’s mother, who teaches at the IIT in Delhi, is moved by Dan’s concern for her daughter and tries her best to cope with the situation with her two children, a boy and a girl. Shiuli’s uncle is worried about the heavy expenses without hope of her recovery so he persuades the mother to give permission to pull the plug of the life support system. A concerned but shocked Dan, looking the other way, simply says, “Did anyone ask her whether she would like the plug pulled?”
Later in the film, he requests the attending nurse not to permit the uncle to stand near the plug when he comes to visit. When the uncle tells Shiuli’s mother that she will not even recognise them, Dan retorts, “So what? You do recognise her all right, don’t you?” with a quiet reserve one is not familiar with. Dan is naïve, innocent, completely irresponsible but these are the qualities that endear him not only to his peers at work but also to the seemingly strict training manager Asthana.
Chaturvedi has handled each character like a piece of fragile glass that can be smashed to pieces with the slightest mishandling and Sircar extends the same care with his directorial craft. The uncle who suggests pulling the plug is not really bad but is concerned about the rest of the family and their suddenly topsy-turvy financial future. Geetanjali Rao’s portrayal as the mother is astounding in its dignity, in its suppression of pain of her elder daughter lying in coma for months together.
October is more a collage of beautiful moments that will remain archived in our memories than a real, full-blooded and fleshed out story. Once, when Dan is ‘punished’ with the duty of swatting flies and mosquitoes just outside the entrance of the hotel and later complains, one catches a glimpse of Shiuli looking from her assigned place at him with concern.
There is a touch of humour when a family checking out discovers that it has forgotten to take their small boy with them! Dan finds him in the toilet, throwing things into the commode. Dan quietly picks him up and places him on top of a cleaning trolley just outside the room and leaves him there. Later, another intern comes and picks him up.
His complete absorption about what is happening at that moment in the hospital with Shiuli affects his professional duty several times and finally, he is thrown out. There is a moving touch when Dan brings a handful of shiuli flowers and keeps them beside Shiuli’s hospital bed. That night, Shiuli moves her eyelids and Dan is convinced that the fragrance of the shiuli brought her to consciousness, never mind if even for miniscule seconds.
Shiuli, reduced to a vegetable living on a life support system with tubes running out and into her frail and comatose body is as much a character as are the others. Bandita Sandhu takes up the challenge of emoting, very minimally and as economically as possible, only with her large eyes flitting from one side to the other and comes out with flying colours.
It is a beautiful portrayal that is equal to the way Varun Dhavan puts flesh and blood into Dan. He has shown what he is capable of in Badlapur some years ago that undercuts the image of the happy-go-lucky hero of masala films. But with Dan, he had to keep his emotions in complete control, allowing them to sort of peep out when needed and hide away when not. The medical conferences around Shiuli’s problem are also credible and necessary.
Dan’s mother is called up by the hotel for the compensation the family will have to shell out for Dan who was sacked in disgrace. Her kind but tired eyes complain that in ten months, he did not care to see his parents even for a day. Dan has no answer. Then the mother asks to see Shiuli and softens seeing her mother’s patience and restraint. That is another beautiful moment in the film – the two mothers sharing the pain of motherhood at a critical time, allowing the brief bonding to flow freely.
The small wayside tea stall where the colleagues congregate and Dan’s mother waits for him adds a touch of credible relief to a film constantly flitting back and forth between the lush interiors of a luxury hotel and the white-walled interiors of a big hospital with its clinical ambience where death lurks just round the corner, waiting to spring any minute.
The very low key music by Shantanu Moitra enriches the persistent inner pain the film spells out all along the way. Avik Mukhopadhay’s camera work is magical as it moves in top angle shots capturing the roads of the city as darkness begins to fall, catching Dan as he speeds away on his two-wheeler from behind, switching to the lush green trees in the garden of the hotel, to change tracks within the hotel corridors and kitchens and from there, to the starched interiors of the ICU where Shiuli is lying, waiting to regain consciousness.
Chandrashekar Prajapati had a very challenging role as editor because it must have been a formidable task for him to decide where to cut and sweep and fade out or drastically cut a scene to go to another and why. But his editing is smooth and seamless because there are no jerks and you are never taken by surprise because by then, you are completely absorbed in the film and its characters and their problems.
The film is never about whether Shiuli will recover or die or remain in coma forever. It is not about whether Dan will or will not realise that his involvement is superfluous because there is a family behind her. It is about how a three-word, simple question can take a story to a completely different level. The words are not “I Love You” but, “Where is Dan?” And, he tries to find the answer through the shiuli plant outside Shiuli’s home which he offers to carry away when her family - mother and two kids, are moving back to Trichy.
This is a film that challenges any rating system so I will leave it at that. Take a bow Shooji and Juhi and the entire team.