Shoojit Sircar’s October (written by Juhi Chaturvedi) grows on you like an epiphany. Poetic and poignant, and yet filled with a yearning, the Varun Dhawan film is the star’s most un-Dhawan outing. Calling it a love story would be like merely scratching the surface. An awakening, coming-of-age, missed connections, tenuous bonds - the film weaves many themes in its gossamer fabric. Since October steers clear of easy answers, The Quint spoke with the director to unravel its enigma. Find out why Shiuli asks for Dan and more.
There’s a lot left to the imagination in the film. October does not spoon-feed the audience with answers. Was that your brief to Juhi Chaturvedi? What did you want the audience to feel after watching it?
Shoojit Sircar: My brief to Juhi was only this - we wanted to create a relationship similar to that of a mother and child. A bond that is unconditional. Anything you can write which highlights this kind of a bond. This story was the interpretation of that bond. Secondly, a lot of effort went into restraining myself. To craft it in such a way that you are not underlining everything and that you are not dramatic. In everyday life, you just do things. You don’t have to pronounce it. That was a big challenge as a director. A lot of people told me that they just wanted to hold on to Dan and hug him. They wanted to take Shiuli and Dan home. They wanted to take the mother of the film home. They just wanted to be with that family for some time. That was my idea as a takeaway and I think that exactly happened. So, that’s the big joy.
Did you at any point feel that this film might not connect with a larger audience the way Piku did?
When you make a film, you know who’s your audience…who’s with you and not with you. It’s that simple. Some people may like a story and some may not like it. When I made ‘Piku’, I did not realise they would like it so much. I thought they would not like to see a film, where all the time, people are talking about constipation. Similarly here too, I thought it’s a subject that deals with a passive comatose state. That’s why my tweets were Calm down, take it easy and come and watch the film.
The film is almost meditative. There’s a lot of stillness. Did you hone this in your personal life? Does that translate into your process and your film?
I, myself am into meditation. I practiced meditation for the last many years. I teach my friends and a lot of people around me to meditate. I taught Varun and Banita how to meditate. Yes, meditation is an important factor in terms of my film-making. Comatose is such a medical science that some things have not yet been proven. It’s a different world altogether. It’s a dilemma. You’re definitely right. It’s meditative and it has a spiritual feel to it.
Could you give us some insights into the motivations of Dan? If a therapist were to analyse Dan, what would s/he make of him? What prompts him to keep going to the hospital to visit Shiuli?
One thing you must understand is that there was nothing between them. I left it open and let it flow. There are some people in the world and around you, who still are selfless... like the bond I mentioned of a mother and a child. They do thankless jobs. We still don’t know if they were in love. The film is finished but we don’t know if they were in love. Someone from the family exactly goes through what Dan goes through. If somebody is in the hospital, ask them, they have been through the same feelings.
“My first hand experience was in 2004, when my mom went into a coma. She was in a comatose state for three and a half months. Every day I went into the hospital and I didn’t know what to talk to her. But I still went and talked to her. She passed away, she couldn’t come out of the coma. She was in Delhi, Vimhans hospital in Dr. Bannerjee’s care. I used to think she’s listening. I would ask the doctor, if she’s able to listen. Maybe she is, may be she’s unable to. It’s a very uncharted territory. I used to wait 24 hours in the hospital, doing nothing. And everybody does that. Medicines, when to pull the plug? When someone is in a vegetative state and non-responsive, a lot of people take the decision to pull the plug and after doing that you realise what you have done. It is a space in medical science where things are left unanswered. I wanted that flow where everything is unanswered. You just have to stand there and serve them, care for them...selflessly.”Shoojit Sircar
You had mentioned in one of your interviews that you conduct a lot of workshops with your actors? What was your creative process for this film?
In this one, I did not do any workshop with script or acting. Every film has a different process. In this film, I adapted a different process. I made sure that both of them get grounded and calm down. So, first thing I taught them was how to meditate.
How to be normal. Not to be hyper or rushed. Because you know my film needed that...everything needed not to be underlined. From cinematography to music to acting to speaking to the art direction... everything. So I wanted everybody to be transported there in the middle of the ICU...in the middle of the hotel. I wanted them to internalise it. So, by doing this...there were no dialogues in this film, everything was performance. Just standing there, doing things, walking away, sleeping, waiting... Calm down, get away from the mobile phones, get away from the world and do things normally. Eat normally, talk normally.
Don’t shout, you don’t have to do ‘dialoguebaazi’ out here. Like for example, for 3 months with Banita we practiced her eye movements. It looks very simple and easy in the film. You try, you will never be able to do it. It’s the most difficult challenge I had in the film and how she did it is just exceptional. She struggled, I knew that she was struggling to achieve that...because you know without blinking, staying there and maintaining her eye movement...it’s meditative actually. If you see in a comatose state, a person is reacting to things...Because you don’t know if she’s listening or not listening but she is processing her commands very slowly. So that was my process of workshop with them. To bring them in a meditative state. And also, as I have gone through those moments too, in my life and possibly Juhi has also gone through, with her mother. She was also on a ventilator for many days. And then we did a lot of documentaries. Saw a lot of documentaries. There are lots of documentaries on HBO and YouTube on the subject of comatose. All the situations that Dan went through are very common for everybody to go through. You go to the doctor, you go to the chemist, the medicines are expensive. You are now managing your funds, how are you going to do it? Pulling the plug is a big discussion. It’s a very common discussion in the hospital, in a comatose state. You ask the doctors - comatose patients, how will they eat? How will they not eat? What will be there? So, all those things are very common. You sleeping there, you don’t know about anything external, your world is cut off from the outside world completely. So, that happens.
Why are there so many shots of Dan commuting on his bike and the city waking up?
There are two purposes - When we started doing a little research on hotel professionals. Hotel job is the toughest job, of all, you know service jobs. It’s tougher than a flight attendant’s job. That’s also a tough job. Hotel people don’t have a personal life. They work and stand. Like a barman cannot sit down. He has to stand for 12 hours. Have you seen a barman standing there, all the time? And servicing. A restaurant guy is constantly working. One table is served, he is working on the next one. They just go and crash and next morning they go and come back. And their shifts are like this. It’s coming back early morning, finishing work late at night and going back home sometimes. And then there’s over time. And the hospital too - when he is coming back and going again to his duty. Such odd timings.
I captured Delhi at that hour - which is absolutely early morning or deep into the night, late night. So I thought about showing Delhi at that hour. That hour I have also seen myself.
Did you ever consider anyone else other than Varun Dhawan for this part?
We were not looking at an established star, we were looking at fresh new faces. But once he was on board, then I didn’t look for anybody else. Because he was so ‘Dan’ himself when he sat in my office.
Could you break down that scene - where Shiuli’s mother stands by a window, Dan is behind an open door and there’s a close-up of Shiuli’s face. We don’t see Dan’s face. Why did you choose to shoot it that way?
Ya you are right, you caught on to that. A lot of debate went on in our office also because of that scene. It’s not that we have not taken his shots. We have shot his close-ups also. But, I somehow felt that, I don’t want to see Dan now. I know what he is going through. It is really heartbreaking to see him now, you know. It’s almost like separating two people and the world is unable to understand what he goes through. I thought it’s very easy for me to cut to Dan and see his reaction but, I thought of not cutting to him at all, and letting people perceive and conceive and be with Dan more and think about him. So, that’s why I left it only to the door and let the mother speak because we have seen downstairs that he is sitting and he knows that his mother has also left. Possibly his own mother has left after being in two minds. Either that I lost my child, I actually lost my child, or what he is doing - nobody can do it. Or, maybe he has matured. He has moved on. I was cringing with the thought of seeing his face. So I see him in the bus straight when he goes to Manali and takes up a job there. That scene stays with you. It is a very difficult scene while editing also. Not to cut to his face. So, I just want to add ki this film, when I got the script and I read the script, I really wanted to experiment with my craft also. I was trying different things, you know. Ya, so it is very difficult to restrain yourself at that moment. I tried that, so I was really happy that movie-lovers have caught on to those moments quite well.
While some viewers loved the melancholic tone of the film, many have found it ‘too morose’ to handle? Isn’t your film about hope?
This film is purely about hope. I think Dan is hope. Tell me a person, you know, apart from a mother... Very few people will selflessly take care of somebody, you know, in the present day and time. So, I think it was not morose, I feel that he brought a lot of optimism and hope, not only to the character... to humanity. We don’t have humans like that. That’s the story. So when my mom was in coma, I was there for three and a half months. I didn’t know when Diwali came and went. I didn’t go for any festival. We didn’t celebrate Diwali.
Could you tell us about the casting of Gitanjali Rao?
Yes, I think she was spot on. When I told her, I called her in the office and I told her, I am doing a film and I want you to be a part of it. She said, ‘are you sure I can do it?’ I said, ‘I feel you can do it’, because her face is of a mother who is strong and also a mother who is vulnerable. A mother who is not giving up easily. But, on the other hand, she is tender. All this to find in one face... Like for example, at the end, when her younger son asks her ki, ‘Mom I have tuition, should I go?’ and she is like, ‘Of course, you must go’. She is composed, she knows life has to move on. I have lost one child but I have two more and I have to live with that. So, she has worked with me on one commercial. She just had an appearance of 4-5 secs in that one. But since then I remembered her... always. I finally got the opportunity here and I cast her.
‘October’ has the world cinema grain. Who is your world cinema inspiration?
Too many. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Bergman, the Iranian cinema. They have all inspired me.
Why did Shiuli ask for Dan?
No reason. It was just very indifferent. People have asked me, ‘Was she in love?’ I said, ‘No’. Maybe, she is a very caring person otherwise. That doesn’t mean that she was showing her love towards him or a soft side towards him. It’s her nature. I know a lot of men and women who are genuinely caring. One doesn’t have to be caring only because someone loves.
Or, that she asked for Dan only because he has something to do with her. Even if Dan was irritable, he repaired her car. So, in a friendship of a gang, these things happen. So she was not at all in love. That was not the intention at all.