The leading man in October wears a name-tag that says ‘Understudy.’ This is because he is a hotel management trainee, tucking bedsheets and swatting houseflies at a five-star property, a youngster not yet worthy of a personalised piece of plastic. That anonymous label, however, also works because of how far removed this passive protagonist is from what Hindi cinema would call a hero, the exaggeratedly alpha man used to doing the impossible. In this film, we have instead an easily irritated boy who, in turn, irritates those around him.
There is an accident, and a girl goes into a coma. Shiuli, a bright girl who worked in the hotel with Dan, lies now in a hospital bed, looking like a broken bird. She had happened to ask about Dan right before disaster struck. They never dated, or shared smiles, or seemed to have a connection, but Dan is overwhelmed by her tragedy, and by what was an utterly casual mention of his name. “Those were her last words,” he says, before catching himself. “I mean, she hasn’t died…” The line trails off, but somehow, in his comatose colleague, Dan has found a cause.
Shiuli is played with fine fragility by Banita Sandhu, an actress the film gazes at unflatteringly for the most part – in hospital light, surrounded by medical apparatus, her head roughly shaved – but Dan looks to her with undisguised adulation, and even sneaks a beauty parlour attendant into the intensive care unit to thread her brows. Shiuli is a tough role, but Sandhu is impressively consistent, and has a winsomeness that suits her character’s name.
Sircar is a masterful filmmaker. I remain thunderstruck by the gorgeous Piku, another of his collaborations with Chaturvedi, but this film may be better still. October is incredibly ambitious, a film that questions our assumptions about empathy and grief while keeping us amused, even tickled – though handkerchiefs should be at hand at all times. The bravery of theme and character is matched by striking craftsmanship. This is an astonishingly well-paced film, tight and highly economical – weighing in under two hours – yet unafraid of stillness or silence.