I watched Shoojit Sircar’s October last week. I walked out of the theatre numb. I saw the film again last weekend. I walked out of the theatre feeling loved and heartbroken at the same time.
I loved October with all the love I had.
And I’m ready to love it more, with all that’s left, with all that I’ll have again.
October features Varun Dhawan as Dan, an endearing hotel trainee student who undergoes a transformation when his colleague Shiuli, played by Banita Sandhu, is hospitalised after a freak accident.
I met Shoojit at his office recently to speak about everything, love, longing and grief.
In an interview with PTI, the director explains the origins of the film, why his characters behave the way they do and his biggest take away from October.
Q) What’s your mental space right now?
A: I’m happy that the film and my craft has been appreciated. My directorial craft, from cinematography, music, how I edited, treated the characters, how honestly it was portrayed- all have been appreciated. It’s giving me joy that everyone has caught the craft which I was also exploring myself.
Q) But your craft as a director was always appreciated…
A: Every film is different. I had never tried this genre. To hold on to yourself, not let it go, not to play it to the gallery, be melodramatic. Holding on to yourself and still be relatable and realistic was a challenge.
Q) Was there ever a temptation to be melodramatic because there are points in the story where you could’ve gone that way.
A: I was sure from day one when I revived the script, that I will not go overboard in terms of performances, music, capturing of scenes. I had to restrain myself.
Q) You previously mentioned that the film draws heavily from your personal experiences. Were you Dan at any point of your life?
A: With my mother, yes I was Dan. She went into coma in 2004 for three and a half months in Delhi. Some of the similar doctors from that hospital gave us medical advice for this film too. I don’t know if I was exactly like Dan, but I went through similar things which any coma patient’s family goes through. Talking to her, waiting, sleeping in the hospital, the crunches of the money. Constant debates within the family and doctors- to pull or not to pull the plug. That’s a big debate which goes on when someone is on a ventilator for months. I’ve gone through these dilemmas.
Q) How old were you back then?
A: I would’ve been in my late 30s.
Q) What did that period do to you?
A: It definitely had a deep impact, it was a learning (experience) and since then I knew everything what happens in a comatose situation. Coma became my study since then. It’s an absolute uncharted territory.
Q) So was ‘October’ one of the first stories you wanted to share with the world before you made ‘Yahaan’?
A: ‘October’ story came from Juhi (Chaturvedi, screenwriter) but my only instruction to Juhi was, ‘can there be an unconditional love portrayed like a mother and child through a relationship.’ That was my basic idea.
Q) So what was the starting point for ‘October’?
A: My life, then bit of ‘Shoebite’ (his unreleased film starring Amitabh Bachchan) also dealt with comatose. Then Juhi’s mother was also on ventilator for a long time. So she came up with this thought and during ‘Piku’ we started working on it. She came up with the first draft around May 2016. I was really touched by the it was written. The process took us almost one and a half, two years.
Q) Is that the reason why—that your mother was in coma and Juhi’s was on ventilator—that ‘October’ has really strong mothers. The scene between Shuili and Dan’s mothers in the hospital is really powerful…
A: Yes absolutely. The unparalleled love of a mother which is always there for the kids, specially when they’re growing up and about to leave the family and go away—because there were trainees in the film and would’ve gone to work in a few months—but still that innocence is there. The mothers play a very strong part. They let go, they love selflessly.
Q) The hospital scenes looked so real. We haven’t seen hospital wards so closely in Hindi films. There were so many close up shots in the hospital. How was that process like?
A: One was my personal experience and we also had a doctor who gave us real life evidences and stories, as to what exactly happens, the languages doctor speak. We picked up evidences from newspapers, saw documentaries on similar subject to make it look real.
Q) All through ‘October’ we see shots of Metro passing by. The film begins with one too. Is there a metaphor I’m missing?
A: I didn’t want Delhi with India Gate. Every film we have, we know Delhi through India gate. But I thought we know Delhi also through metro. I’m from Delhi, I’ve lived there and I wanted to have a different eye to look at the city.
Q) One of my favourite moments is in the end when Shiuli’s brother—after her death—asks his mother, should he go to tuitions and she says ‘yes you should go ‘ without even blinking. Life goes on…
A: Yes, life has to go on. That’s what it meant, that we have to move on.
Q) Was there a debate between you and Juhi about the end. Some people feel Shiuli should’ve survived. You think she could have lived?
A: Yes, we talked about that. We kept on talking about how it should go but we both agreed that it has to end this way only. Because the kind of fall she has, she was not supposed to live. Even the doctors say that it was a brutal fall, how did she survive. But she pulls through. We thought, in the end, when he takes home the Shuili plant, he got his Shuili back. We thought that was the redemption. Is he still in love? I left it open. May be not, may be yes. But he did this thing very selflessly.
Q) Did Shiuli die happily?
A: I think so, somewhere down the line. I kept it open for people to interpret. When she calls out his name in the end, she possibly conveyed what she wanted to. She discovered him only through hospital visits. May be she was listening. In medical science there is a debate that coma patients listen to every conversation.
Q) The turnaround for Dan happens when he visits ShIulia in the hospital and later gets completely fixated when he gets to know that her last words were ‘Where is Dan?’ Why do you think he got obsessed with that? Is it because his life was aimless and he saw a purpose to the words of Shiuli and latched on to them? To make up for the nothingness happening otherwise in his life?
A: Well, his life was aimless and he still didn’t find a purpose. When he went to the hospital, he got sucked into that world. When he saw her body, it affected him because—and that’s what we felt—that he never saw her as a patient. He saw her as a normal girl.
Q) And that’s why does her eyebrows..
A: Yes, he saw her like that. That’s how I interpreted it too. But here (in the hospital) also he is different and does those innocent things which we think are funny.
Q) Is it a coincidence, when she falls from the roof her head lands on flower pots? We can see pots broken when her body is shown. Later, it’s flowers which heal her…
A: It’s a coincidence!
Q) Even her date of death mentions February 28 on the certificate. In the hospital too, she was patient number 28. Any relevance to the number?
A: Haha. No no, that’s purely a coincidence too.
Q) I was very curious about Dan- where he comes from. There’s no ‘Before and After’. So little is known about him. Was there a ‘before’ to Dan? Did he have a girlfriend before?
A: May be. Dan is a usual boy but what he does is unusual. These are the things people should do anyway. He says ‘do you do certain things only where there is a chance?’ He says don’t pull the plug. He hopes. This is what we need to do everyday in our life.
Q) There is also this funny scene where he is eating biscuit in the chemist shop inside the hospital and helps a chemist understand a medicine’s name!
A) That happened with me too. It’s very normal for anyone to get sucked into that environment. You start scrutinising things because you have nothing to do. Doctors will meet you for 5-10 minutes, then it’s just wait for 23 hours. All you do is explore.
Q) In that scene, the actor who comes at the chemist shop, I figured watching the end credits that he was actually the one who shot and directed the ‘Making of October’.
A: Haha. Yes. When we were shooting I thought he was the right guy and I made him do it. That was very random!
Q) The way you treat death is not grim, you don’t make it melodramatic. Be it ‘Piku’ or ‘October’. How do you look at deaths?
A: The idea, for example in ‘Piku’, was to take death as a natural process. Not to be morose but to celebrate. I thought it has to be dealt in such a poetic way- it shouldn’t hit you in the way that something huge has happened. I try keep it as normal as possible. You feel bad about it but after a point you’ve to move on.
Q) The pace of ‘October’ is so, life like. Is it a risk to not make it so slow that the audience gets bored. What’s the trick to make the film engaging even if nothing monumental is happening at the screenplay level?
A: You have to be with the character, the camera has to be in the milieu, my landing of the audience has to be directly in the middle of the ICU, they should be ‘ghera-oed’ by that situation. My brief to my DoP and actors is just that- the audience should be there with you and not watch you from a distance.
Q) Has ‘October’ changed you?
A: What it has done is, you start building faith in actors like Varun Dhawan who become so brave and jump into your world and give it their all, not bothering about what his world is all about, completely cut everything and experiment. Same with Banita, for her first film she gave it all, including cutting her hair. These youngsters when they do these things, it inspires me.
What I’ve realised about Varun is that he can laugh at himself. He’s like a treasure. He’ll do something silly and laugh at himself, if he does something which is the best, he’ll still laugh and say ‘I know you didn’t like.’ That’s his biggest gift.
Q) Was he ever unsure about the film?
A: He was trying to understand my mind all the time. His only focus was wanting to know what’s going on in my mind. I also played with that, kept on motivating him. When he went into the film, after two weeks he got it.
Q) Did you shoot it linearly?
A: The climax scene was shot first because then beard had to go. His toughest day was the first day because it was the climax, where he has a conversation with Shuili’s mother and then carries the flower pot! He told me ‘sir you’re starting with climax, you promised me you’ll go linear.’ I told him I can’t help it, this needs beard so let’s do it. For him it was difficult, but we had prepped very well so I knew he would pull it off.