Shoojit Sircar’s October is a beautiful story of love. The film is set in the two ends of the hospitality industry—a hotel and a hospital. Dan (Varun Dhawan) and Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) are training as interns at a hotel in Delhi. One night, Shiuli falls from the hotel and enters into a state of coma. After visiting Shiuli at the hospital, Dan is immensely affected by her condition and starts taking care of her at the expense of his personal life. In the process, he develops a special bond with Shiuli’s mother Vidya (Gitanjali Rao). Taking care of Shiuli gives a purpose to Dan’s life, and brings a change in him.
October shows us the fragility, the unpredictability, and the inevitability of life. One moment someone is enjoying a party, and the very next moment, one can slip to death. A group of people can be dancing merrily in a wedding procession, while someone would be struggling to buy medicines for a loved one who is fighting death. As we see in the film, Dan purchases medicines for Shiuli from a chemist when people around him are dancing in a wedding procession. Shiuli survived the trauma of the fall and recovered slightly but death came to her suddenly through a seizure after she went home. As Bhaskor Banerjee said in Piku, death and shit come unannounced. During all this period, Shiuli’s mother continues to teach at her college. Shiuli’s siblings bring their books to the hospital. After Shiuli’s death, her brother asks his mother if he should go for his tuition class. She replies that he should. Life does not stop for anyone. It goes on and we all have to move with it.
In October, flowers are a repeating motif. Splendidly shot by Abhik Mukhopadhyay, flowers can be seen all through the film, both in artificial and in natural surroundings. These flowers have a special significance in the film, especially, in the case of Shiuli. She is named after the shiuli flower, which is also known by parijat, harsingar, raat ki rani, and the night jasmine. These flowers bloom in the month of October. They have a short life, and fall from the trees during the night time. Shiuli used to collect these flowers and keep them with her. Like the shiuli flower, Shiuli falls from a building and has a short life. Before her death, Shiuli starts recovering only after Dan keeps these flowers in her room. The fragrance of these flowers had some kind of a medicinal effect on her.
In an earlier scene in the film, Dan had seen shiuli flowers scattered all over the floor at the hotel. He does not care much about them. Shiuli chides him that he could have picked them up even if he did not throw them on the floor. By the end of the film, Dan undergoes a profound change and grows up. When he visits Shiuli’s house, he picks up not just the flowers, but rather takes the entire tree of shiuli with him. He takes the same flowers for which he did not care anything about earlier. With these, he is also taking Shiuli’s memories with her that he will nurture for his life. This is a touch that is reminiscent of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera where Varun paints the last leaf of a tree to prove his immense love for Pakhi and by doing so, he gives Pakhi a hope to live.
At some point in the film, the nurse asks Dan about his relationship with Shiuli. He replies that he is neither her relative nor her boyfriend. Before Shiuli went into a coma, Dan and Shiuli were not the best of friends. There was no special affinity between the two except for the fact that they were in the same training program. After Shiuli’s accident, Dan becomes completely devoted to Shiuli’s care even if there was no relationship between them. He is so much into Shiuli’s care that he starts losing things in his own life. He loses his relationships. He loses his parents. He loses his job. Yet, he goes on taking care of her selflessly. I kept thinking if his selfless devotion to Shiuli was the reason that he was named Dan. His full name, Danish Walia, is heard only once or twice in the entire film. Everyone calls him with the shorter anglicised version ‘Dan’, but it is actually दान in Devanagari script. दान means a gift given to someone without the expectation of getting back anything in return. Dan gave up everything for Shiuli. It was his selfless and unconditional love that he gave to another human being. The film names Shiuli after the flowers, and Shiuli’s mother Vidya after education as she is a teacher. As names and titles in the film are given after some thought, perhaps, Dan is named after his selflessness (दान).
In an interview, writer Mohsin Hamid has said, “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” Empathy is about understanding someone else’s emotions. It is not the same as pity. October shows a change in Dan by developing an empathy in him. After Shiuli’s accident, Dan sees a man cleaning the windows of a skyscraper while being suspended from a rope. Probably, Dan was wondering at the height from which the man was working. We all might have seen a person like this, but how often do we stop to think about these people. In another instance, when Dan is in the hospital, he tells everyone sitting there to put their feet up so that the cleaning person can sweep the floor. As a worker who also had to clean floors, Dan empathizes with this person. Early in the film, Dan was put in the laundry department. He did not like working there and was constantly complaining to the workers. Immediately after this scene, he comes home and the cleaning lady is washing his jeans. Dan is irritated when she calls his pants as a panty. Slowly and slowly, while taking care of Shiuli, Dan becomes empathetic. When Shiuli comes home after being discharged, Dan helps build a wooden ramp at her house, which prompts Shiuli’s sister to remark that they did not think of it. Dan could understand the problems that they might face by being in others’ shoes. He even becomes empathetic to kids and starts talking to them.
In addition to the blossoming of the shiuli flowers, October is the month of change of seasons in Delhi. The movie’s title can also be read as a symbol of the external and the internal change in Dan. He joined as a trainee in a hotel management program. He was made to do different things, such as housekeeping, washing, fly swatting, and bartending. He did not enjoy many of these tasks and had plans to start up his own business. By the end of the film, Dan finds his calling and becomes a sous chef at the hotel. This external journey of Dan is complemented by his inner transformation. The last words that Shiuli spoke before she fell were, “Where is Dan?” These words have a profound impact on Dan and he is immensely affected by them. He believes that the last words of a person are important, and convinces himself that Shiuli felt something for him. These words gave him a purpose and he started caring for Shiuli, which brought about a change in him. He remained irritated earlier, but later, he becomes empathetic and mellow. Earlier, he could not understand the various machines in the hospital. He did not know anything about ammonia and chlorine. Later, he grows up and could easily read even the bad handwriting of a doctor on a prescription of blood pressure. He understands that when the urine output is high, it means that the brain and the kidney are not affected. Like a kid, he was walking over the hotel’s towels to express his anger. Once, while cleaning, he finds a young child in a room. He could well be that lost boy in the room. Later, Dan grows up from that rebellious kid to a compliant man. When Shiuli’s mother asks him to leave, he goes away without any questions. All through the film, we see him sleeping in different places. He was going through this inner turmoil. Shiuli has a calming impact on him. By the end of the film, he seems to be a completely different person. Dan has matured and grown up.
Dan is not a very likable person initially. However, as the film progressed, I started to like Dan. The scene where he talks to the nurse about his wedding and asks her to bring a gift is lovely. Varun Dhawan as Dan is wonderful. Some of Dan’s transgressions made me frown. For instance, he brings a lady to the hospital and makes her thread Shiuli’s eyebrows. Without taking anybody’s consent, he does that to Shiuli. He does not really understand the concept of personal space. Earlier also, it was seen in the film when he asks Ishani to scratch his back. He tells her to scratch at different positions, which made her feel uncomfortable. He also fought with a guest who had brought a woman along with him and passive aggressively tells him that last time, he came with a different woman, insinuating that he is a man of a questionable character. In another such instance, he tells the hospital clerk that he knows about his shenanigans with the nurses. But, somehow, this nosiness became a pillar of support to Shiuli’s mother. Shiuli’s uncle wanted to pull the plug, but it was Dan who commented that Shiuli would not like to die. It was as if his words gave support to Shiuli’s mother. He becomes a part of their family.
October is the third collaboration between Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi after Vicky Donor and Piku. The film incorporates the personal experiences of the two of them as their respective mothers were also in a state of coma at some point in their lives. In all three films, there are certain common elements. The three films are predominantly set in Delhi. Films are shot on real locations, such as Lajpat Nagar, Chittaranjan Park, and Dwarka. There are single parents in all the three films. Vicky was raised by his mother and his grandmother. Piku was raised by Bhaskor. Shiuli and her siblings are raised by her mother Vidya as their father died ten years ago. In addition, the films deal with bodily fluids. In Vicky Donor, it was semen. In Piku, it was shit. In October, it is urine. When Shiuli is in hospital, Dan checks the urine bag attached to her body.
There is one more thing common in all the three films and that is food. There are two aspects to it. First and more prominent is the way food is presented in the film. There are close-up shots of food in all the three films that are just lovely. In October, there are shots of exquisite dishes being prepared in the hotel. Later, Dan prepares pasta and salmon which are presented beautifully. In Piku, too, there were was a special focus on the absolutely delicious shots of any food item in the film. This was seen when Piku and Bhaskor were having their dinners. Later, when they stop at a dhaba during their trip, there were shots of paranthas. And, in Calcutta, Bhaskor goes on a day trip where we again see some lovely close-up shots of jalebis and puris. In Vicky Donor, the same thing is shown when Ashima is preparing fish. The camera shows fish being fried. Or in another instance, Vicky is eating chhole bhature and the camera pans to the puffy bhature. The second and less prominent aspect related to food in the films of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi is that the characters are often seen eating something. There are literally so many scenes where the characters are seen eating something. After a point, I lost track. This is present in all their three films. In October, people are seen eating items, such as khichdi, pizza, and kababs. In Piku, as well, there are many shots of Piku eating something. Rana and Piku talk about life while having kathi rolls. Bhaskor used to hide salt. In both October and Piku, there is mention of khichdi. Dan and Manjeet are eating khichdi. Bhaskor and Piku are also seen eating khichdi. In Vicky Donor, Dr. Baldev Chaddha is always found near a chaat stall. Ashima’s father used to do a fish test for prospective grooms for her. Ashima and Vicky used to call each other Butter Chicken and Fish Fry. It seems Shoojit and Juhi love food. They can clarify more on the meaning of these shots. Maybe something related to slice of life.
People eating in October, Piku, and Vicky Donor
Khichdi in Piku and October
In addition to the above elements, October has themes similar to that of Piku. There is a talk of death and ventilators in the two films; however, the tone of Piku is less melancholic than October. There is a point in Piku where Piku tells Rana that she cannot leave her father. She has become like a mother to him. She will take care of him always. In October, Shiuli’s mother takes care of Shiuli. It is about never giving up on your loved ones. Additionally, in Piku, there are many scenes where Piku is cleaning the house. At one point, she unclogs the kitchen sink. The underlying theme in the movie was that something was stuck. Constipation in Piku was another representation of something that remained stuck and the body needed to be cleaned. In October, too, there are many scenes related to cleaning. Dan is cleaning the toilet. He is doing laundry. He is sweeping the floors. Dan asks others to raise their feet when he sees a person sweeping the floors in the hospital. When Dan is about to enter the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to meet Shiuli, he is asked to take off his shoes and cleanse his hands. It is the most basic procedure to be followed but it reminded me of the way, people wash their hands and feet before entering any place of worship. It is as if his soul is being cleaned and a direction is given to his life. At some point, Dan’s friend had remarked that his entire training will go into cleaning. It is said that cleanliness is next to godliness (as a poster in Dan’s hotel also says). There is a devotional aspect to this cleansing of Dan. In another similarity between the two films, we see that in Piku, during the last scene, Rana is playing badminton with Piku at her place but he is not inside the gate like they are not in a relationship yet, but sometime in the future, he could well be inside. The state of their relationship is left open to interpretation. In October, too, when Shiuli’s mother is leaving for Trichy, she calls Dan at her house. When Dan comes, they talk while sitting at the doorstep. They do not sit inside. Dan’s state of mind and his relationship with Shiuli is again left open at the end.
Apart from Dan, there is something poignant about the other characters in the film. Shiuli’s mother Vidya has such a strength of character. She never gives up. Gitanjali Rao is brilliant in the film. The scene between the mothers of Shiuli and Dan is heartbreaking. They are talking about losing their children. “Hamari zindagi sochte nikal jati hai kahin unhe kho toh nahi denge.” One mother has lost her child to a tragedy, and in some ways, another mother has also lost her child to a tragedy. When Dan’s mother sees the interaction between Dan and Vidya, she realizes she has lost Dan. Also, Dan’s manager Asthana (played by Prateek Kapoor, who has the most memorable unibrow after Padmaavat‘s Padmavati) is another of my favorite character in the film. Initially, he seems like a typical inhumane boss. But, then, even he warms up to Dan. He defends Dan in front of his own boss. When Asthana’s manager scolds Dan that he attended only fifty-five days in six months, Asthana chimes in and says that it is fifty-eight days, as if adding three more days is going to change anything. Asthana recommends Dan to the resort in Kullu where is hired without an interview. Like all of us, Asthana develops a kindness towards Dan.
The film shows all the clinical procedures in the hospital with precision. Characters talk about being practical. Shiuli’s uncle tells everyone to be practical. Ishani also tells Dan that in life we have to be practical. At the same time, there is an underlying emotional core to the film that cannot be fully explained by science. Shiuli starts getting better only after she smells the fragrance of the shiuli flowers. In another non-scientific scene, before Shiuli dies, Dan sees her spirit at his place as if she came to say one last goodbye to him. Dr. Bose enlightens Dan by telling him that the all the scientific terms are essentially talking about the human soul and a soul does not go into a coma. The soul is always conscious. Dan’s friends tell him that Shiuli has a low chance of survival. Dan asks his friends if they do something only when it is a sure ‘chance’. In the book When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” I think that sums up October as well. When science gives no answers, hope, love, and striving can get us through even the most difficult of times.
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