'October' Raises Tough Questions, But Doesn't Examine Them Closely

Despite the complex questions involved, the makers ultimately cave in to sentimentality, turning 'October' into a generic exploration of loss.

Your response to Shoojit Sircar’s October will rely heavily on how you perceive its first 18 minutes. Here we meet Dan (Varun Dhawan), Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) and their friends. As students of a hotel management course, they’re working as trainees in a Delhi five-star hotel, receiving guests, cleaning rooms, serving food. Dan is disinterested and irritable; Shiuli is invested and amiable. They are in the same batch, but they aren’t friends. They speak to each other only once in a while, like casual acquaintances. Dan once derides her in front of their supervisor and peers, but Shiuli isn’t offended. Under ordinary circumstances, they’d have graduated, gone their different ways and lost touch — or seen each other years later on Facebook or a WhatsApp group.

But a film is seldom ordinary. So, at the end of 18 minutes, Shiuli slips from the third floor of the hotel, falls headlong on the road and is rushed to a hospital. She is in a coma, kept alive with 19 tubes, unable to see, speak or move. Dan, who till now was a malcontent drifter, has suddenly found a purpose: caring for Shiuli.

He visits the hospital frequently, stays long hours with her mother (Gitanjali Rao) and objects when her uncle suggests euthanasia. His feelings intensify when he finds out that Shiuli’s last words, uttered nonchalantly, were, “Where is Dan?” He is convinced that he missed something. He asks Shiuli’s friend whether she spoke about him. Dan’s fixation turns into affection, which soon becomes love.

We think it’s love because it looks like love. Dan is every bit the committed partner. He brings her flowers, befriends the nurse, checks with the doctor. He spends almost as much time at the hospital as her family members. Dan’s transition could have looked contrived, but Sircar and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi, who earlier collaborated in Vicky Donor and Piku, have an admirable grasp over mood and pace; the tone, too, is consistent. Nothing happens quickly and abruptly; each scene, unhurried by the other, looks complete in itself. Pain, helplessness and fear intersect, so do mundaneness and humour. In such a world, it is easy, almost natural, to believe the protagonist, to like and side with him.

But there’s a catch. Dan’s feelings for Shiuli primarily result from sympathy and narcissism. Would Dan have taken interest in her if she weren’t hospitalised? Would he have cared as much about her if her last words didn’t mention him? Dan’s love, in such a case, almost looks reverse engineered. His emotions have outpaced reasons. But is that such a bad thing? October seems to be asking us, “Is love devoid of reason a lesser love?” Or, extrapolating it further, “Can a lasting, meaningful relationship emerge from a hollow foundation?”

Since we’ve come to like Dan, we, much like him, want answers to these questions. Maybe the reasons were present all along. To find love in the present, the past is reevaluated and mined for hints and meanings. So Shiuli craning her neck to take a peek at Dan, when she was at the reception and he outside the main gate, no longer looks like normal curiosity; it is a proof of her fondness. In another scene, her belated “Bye Dan” seems to mask hidden longing. Her final words, in light of these moments, don’t feel commonplace but poignant. Our love is centred on the stories we tell ourselves, what we choose to see and believe.

That, however, is just one part of the film, solely seen through the perspective of Dan. Shiuli’s part of the story, due to her condition, is completely absent — something that can reshape our understanding of this relationship in crucial ways. That missing link is important because she cannot consent. At one point, Shiuli’s uncle suggests removing the plug, because her chances of getting well look remote. To which Dan says, “Has anyone asked what she wants? Maybe she wants to live.” But Dan doesn’t know her views about him, either. What if she doesn’t want him around? They were never friends; he’s not family. Dan and the film, for the large part, just assume that his presence is vital.

That assumption doesn’t look earned because Dan is a split figure: a reservoir of patience and love at the hospital, and an angry irrational mess at the hotel. Moreover, his self-absorption undercuts his innocence. When Shiuli starts regaining consciousness, he sticks his photos on her bed so that she can eventually recognise him. He also gets her eyebrows threaded — a scene that may look either endearing or disturbing depending on your definitions of intrusion, consent and entitlement. Later, when she identifies her family members but not him, he convinces himself, while talking to her, that she does remember him. (The subsequent scenes show that she indeed recognises Dan, but we don’t know what she thinks of him.) Is Dan’s love, then, an elaborate exercise in self-deception? Is she then less of a person – and more of a mission, a project – for him, like many women are for directionless men in Hindi cinema: a course in self-improvement?

The writing in October is assured and confident to raise such tough, complex questions, but it seems unwilling to examine them closely. You get the sense that Sircar and Chaturvedi are aware of Dan’s failings, that they’re skeptical of his intentions and, indeed, his feelings, but they ultimately cave in to sentimentality, turning October into a generic exploration of loss without probing its origins or context. A rebuttal to that complaint could be that love is irrational, that not everything can be explained or deconstructed, but October provides limited evidence in favour of its makers’ self-awareness.

Grief completes itself. It, for the same reason, can be used to distract and deflect. It can become both the means and the end, a free pass that forbids reflection. This is especially true in contemporary culture, where loss is fetishised, romanticised and, ultimately, commoditised. At its extreme, grief is self-pity, a sophisticated form of intellectual laziness, and October is eventually trapped by its lure. Instead of understanding its own complicated narrative, it relies on the aesthetics of sadness, which, if done well, looks appealing on screen. But such a sentimental approach, even though not emotionally manipulative, runs the risk of ringing hollow – like a soft persistent whimper whose source can’t be traced.

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