Ruchika Oberoi's Island City Captures Many Realities of Mumbai

"Mumbai made me more human," says Oberoi, who discovered loneliness, but also parts of herself, in the city.

Ruchika Oberoi’s debut feature, Island City, which releases today, has had a long journey. The film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last year, in the Venice Days sidebar, and won the Fedeora prize for Best Young Director. Since then, it has premiered in around two dozens film festivals around the world and won several awards.

Comprising three different stories (The Fun Committee, Ghost in the Machine, and Contact) set in Mumbai, Island City is about small people in a big city whose lives are controlled by an external inanimate force. As a result, unbeknown to themselves, they’re slowly becoming machine-like, living a life devoid of meaning and empathy. The first story in this triptych is centered on a corporate drone, living a monotonous routine, who wins a Fun Committee award, which entitles him a day of “fun” at a mall. In the Ghost in the Machine, a man’s family buys a TV, which he had banned, to watch a popular soap while he’s on life support. Contact revolves around a printing press employee, Aarti (Tannishtha Chatterjee), resigned to live a loveless and humdrum life, until she begins receiving a series of anonymous love letters.

Absurd yet real, funny yet disconcerting, Island City is an impressive and confident debut, signaling a new director with a fresh voice, someone who’s willing to take risks, and, more importantly, document everyday yet crucial Indian stories with much humour and humanity.

I was supposed to meet Oberoi at a café in Andheri West, but on reaching, found its entrance crisscrossed by bamboo poles; the café, we found out, was recently shut. Oberoi says later, while answering an unrelated question, that “Bombay is a city where I constantly see things being built and things being broken” – a visual motif present in her film, too. Oberoi and I moved to an adjoining café, where we – over the occasional sound of a coffee maker and churros dipped in chocolate sauce – talked about her writing process, the motifs in her debut feature, Island City’s central character and a city that has finally become home: Mumbai.

Ruchika Oberoi. Source: Special arrangement

Ruchika Oberoi. Source: Special arrangement

Excerpts from the interview:

All the three stories in Island City are fundamentally similar, marked by machines controlling our lives, machines replacing humans, humans failing to empathise. What were their origins and what kind of a film did you set out to make?

The origins were from my experience in Bombay, living by myself, working, living in a kind of space Aarti comes from: a slum rehab colony. So that initial sense of alienation, being small in a big city, even after it has been home for a long time, has remained. Even while I was writing the film, that feeling was there. And I had always wanted to write something about it. In a big city, you do see great opportunities, but, at the same time, you’re just too small to mean anything. So I thought that could be a good starting point for a character like Aarti, somebody who is invisible, who is not really looked at by anybody – the kind of people about whom we feel proud and say, ‘Oh, Bombay always gets back on its feet’; ‘Oh, Bombay is always running.’ These people keep the city running, but at what personal cost?

And, for the second story, quite often there’s a household with a controlling husband, who disapproves of a TV, maybe because he wants the kids to concentrate on studies. And they [the kids, the mother and the grandmother] think, ‘What if we get a TV?’ So what does a lack of control do to you and what do you do when it comes back?

You’ve written the film’s first two stories, while your husband, Sidharth, has written the third. In what order were they originally conceptualised and written?

I had read Contact [written by Sidharth] and I really liked it. It was very urban, talked about alienation, and it somehow seemed to be very Bombay and I wanted to do something with it. At the same time, I was also working on the second story. And then one day, Sidharth had these ‘fun committee coupons’ from his office and I asked him, “What are these?” They looked quite funny and it was ironic, for here’s an office that’s nicely sucking all the fun out of your life, making it depressing, and you’ve this committee injecting a very corporatised kind of fun – for example, there’d be a particular deal with a mall.

It’s these small absurdities of everyday existence that make for interesting ideas. So I was working on them separately, thinking could I turn one of them into a feature, but none of them seemed to have enough material. But when I looked at all the three stories together, I felt they were linked thematically. And maybe it was just that I was working on them at the same time and they had to do with the city, with the state of mind I was in, I thought why not just put them together, as an experiment for myself, and see what sort of picture emerges.

At one point in the third story, Contact, we realise that the film’s narrative is non-linear. Chronologically, the film begins with the third story and ends with the second. Why did you structure the film this way?

The first story is kind of unreal – very stylised – and the third one is real, while the middle one is somewhere in between: an ordinary family watching an unreal TV serial. Which is why I wanted to start the film in an unreal space. Because there’s a certain Bombay – which has come up before my eyes, the glass and steel buildings, the American corporate culture – that is like an island within itself and that Bombay doesn’t really connect to, what we may call the real Bombay, and I wanted to keep that as an unreal space; I even wanted the acting [in that portion] to be stylised. And then I slowly wanted the film to become more real and leave the viewer with a sense of realism.

Island City is also, in some way, anti-science fiction. Its stories aren’t quite ‘real’ in the strict sense of the word, yet they’re set in an everyday world and the end result from that combination is unsettling. What motivated that juxtaposition?

Each of the elements, which may look absurd and unreal, is rooted in realism – maybe I’ve just enhanced the absurdity. And the [motif and plot points about] machines brought out the alienation more strongly. Here, machines are giving you instructions; machines talk to you; machines understand you better than the people around you. That wasn’t meant to be a comment on the future as much as it was a comment on what we’re making of our present, and our disconnect with each other.

It’s also when you largely make everything else real, but make a tiny portion unreal, that the absurdity becomes prominent, so, at every point of time, especially with the second and third story, my intention with the acting and the spaces was to always keep it real.

Island City presents a bleak world, where people are indifferent, even callous, and yet its tone is not condescending or flippant. The film manages to achieve what its characters cannot: remain humane and empathetic. Given the inherent nature of these stories, how difficult was it to achieve that?

That was very difficult. In the beginning, I kept thinking that it should not become a film where we’re enjoying the [characters’] depravity, because dark humour is tricky. Sometimes a film with dark humour does leave you cold, but I feel even in that kind of humour the intention somewhere is humane. Even there, the director is trying to make you aware of a certain kind of darkness creeping into people, society. It may make you laugh, but you also take a step back and think, ‘Did I really laugh at that?’

Island City is set in Mumbai and yet the film doesn’t name the city, or the stories’ individual settings. The city is, in fact, mostly absent in its geographical form (it’s mostly shot indoors; there’re no shots of iconic landmarks or streets) but present in spirit. There is, it seems, a constant tension between making this film specific as well as universal.

I didn’t set out to specifically make a film about Bombay. Of course, my relationship with the city has found its way into the film, but I can’t say that that is the only Bombay experience. In fact, I was more concerned with things like agency, control, trying to regain control and that control slipping out. And these things come more to the fore in a place like Bombay, where there’s a constant struggle, in terms of battling with so many people, which kind of reaches a boiling point.

I thought maybe the choice of not naming the city or the settings of individual stories was intentional.

I didn’t really think about naming anything; I didn’t feel the need to do that. Each of the stories have their own space – for example, Arati’s space can be anywhere within Bombay; there’re many like her. I wanted these characters to be a little more universal and I wanted to give them a particular situation, but I didn’t really feel the need to specify the geography.

The three stories look and feel different. The first story looks neat, feels smooth; the third one looks (slightly) grainy and feels choppy. What kind of thought and effort went behind creating three different worlds? Did you, for instance, use different cameras for different segments?

We didn’t use different cameras. But we wanted each story to have a distinct colour palette. It’s not like we imposed a colour palette, but it came naturally from the spaces. The first story has more of a blue and steel kind of feel, because the space is like that. He [Vinay Pathak’s character] is dressed in blue. And when he goes into the mall, we wanted to have slightly more prominent colours, which kind of pop out, which is why that portion has a lot of red. Also, in that story, we wanted the movement to be smooth, because there’s smoothness in that office, smoothness in the motion of the escalator. Each of the scenes also stays for longer because they induce that feeling of alienation, because I didn’t want this portion to play out like a thriller or a laugh-riot. I wanted that space, that extra little second while cutting, so that you’re also having a different kind of dialogue with the piece.

For the second story, the TV serial had its own aesthetics – loud colours, a lot of movements, sound – so we wanted to balance that out by keeping things real with the family. We wanted minimal movements and background music, warmer colours; we also shot a lot with static frames.

And the cameraman [Sylvester Fonseca] wanted to shoot the third story handheld. We shot that segment in small spaces with few lights, which led to grainy visuals and a sense of immediacy. It was interesting to shoot four mini-films in different style. We had a lot of fun.

Island City is, at some level, also about loneliness, about slow but sure detachment from others. Were you particular about the kind of loneliness you wanted to portray, loneliness that was perhaps central to Mumbai?  

I didn’t want to make any statement about the city. But that sense of loneliness was my first and abiding experience of Bombay – something I hadn’t encountered in my life before: that feeling of insignificance. So the moment I wanted to make a film in and about the city, I thought this is something I must talk about, which would also speak to other people, something they’d be able to relate to. A lot of us, who are living away from our families, are going through this and I wanted my film to have that undertone.

I read a news article a few years ago, where a Mumbai man living by himself had died in his flat and no one knew about it for several days. His death became news only when his flat was forced open.

That loneliness is very unique to Bombay – in that it’s not like the West where you’re simply… alone. Let’s take a character like Arati, who’s living in a small space shared by five people; similarly, here, it’s common for six to eight people to share a small house, but just sharing that space doesn’t mean anything, because you can’t really communicate with each other; you don’t really understand each other. You don’t have the time; you don’t have the space, because in this city you’re always on the move, so it’s not the people, it’s just that the city doesn’t give you that space.

You’re an outsider to the city. You spent a part of your childhood in Dhanbad, went to college in Delhi and Pune, and then began working in Mumbai. How do you see your relationship with the city and how has it changed over the years?

I feel that all the cities are home and yet none of them are home. But Bombay was the first place where I confronted myself, confronted many issues, because while growing up, with your family, you don’t really ask yourself, “What sort of an individual am I?” Or, “If I want to be an artist, what kind of an artist should I be?”

Bombay has shaped me, made me look at inequalities and at so many other things that I otherwise wouldn’t have, had I been in a cozy space. Bombay has made me a little more human.

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