‘October’: Love in the time of Juhi Chaturvedi
The 'Piku' screenwriter returns to confound our expectations of on-screen romance
Juhi Chaturvedi calls Mahanagar a great love story. Satyajit Ray’s progressive 1963 drama about a woman becoming the sole breadwinner of a family does not, however, centre on a traditional man-woman romance, climaxing instead in the actor’s impassioned defence of her wronged friend: an Anglo-Indian girl who unforgettably taught her how to use lipstick.
Chaturvedi—a former advertising professional making significant waves in Hindi cinema by writing the clutter-breaking films Vicky Donor (2012), Piku (2015), and the masterful new October (2018)—clearly believes in love without hierarchy. In her films, directed by fellow advertising alumnus Shoojit Sircar, romance defies convention. Vicky Donor had an infertile wife envious of her prolific sperm-donating man, Piku featured fleeting glimpses and the matter-of-fact affection shared by two people trying to keep an old man in good humour, and October features a young man caught in the most unconditional love, that of the caregiver.
“I don’t know if I’m trying to redefine how we look at love," smiles Chaturvedi, over a cup of tea at a health café on a glaringly sunny day, “but this is all I know of love. Love at first sight...maybe in my teens it did happen, I saw one guy in the coaching class and when he would come, and I would really figure out a way to come and stand at the gate for those 2 minutes to see him.... But that’s not what I feel is love."
October is an ode to love without expectation. In the film, Varun Dhawan plays Dan, a restless, surly boy who begins to care for a comatose colleague. This is not out of attraction or some deep friendship, but an instinctive need to care.
“You don’t realize what changes you when you convert into a caregiver," Chaturvedi explains, as someone who cared for her own significantly ill mother for decades, growing up in a world full of oncological terms and the smell of hospitals. “You become a person who finds another person as a hook for yourself. You begin to slowly find an enjoyment in that life, that routine, in the idea of caring. It provides a focal point and, in Dan’s case, it becomes, perhaps, the purpose that he always lacked. Here he started finding himself."
In the film, Shiuli, played by Banita Sandhu, has an accident right after she enquires about Dan, casually, at a party he has given a miss. Her question—“Where is Dan?"—becomes Dan’s personal obsession, the unlikely hero amplifying the importance of the most throwaway words, allowing them to give him a sense of meaning. “I don’t think it was ‘Where is Dan?’ for Shiuli," explains the writer, “as much as it was ‘Where is Dan?’ for Dan."
“All love means is being there," says Chaturvedi. “In your own way. My expression of love doesn’t need to match your expression. That freedom is love. It’s not about owning someone, or declaring what love is, or complaining that you aren’t behaving this way, or you’re not sending cards, it’s not that at all."
“It is all about feeling that connection and giving it your absolute truth. Even if it was for three months, but during those three months, you were absolutely honest with your feelings and you did enough to let that person know. Or, even if that other person doesn’t know, because sometimes you can’t define it, but the strength of that connection is such that those two energies know something is nice between them. And that doesn’t have to lead anywhere. And it can happen with anyone."
She insists that October, a film making many weep copiously across the country, could not have happened before Piku. A former Ogilvy and Mather art director who branched into writing copy for commercials—where she met Sircar—Chaturvedi doesn’t consider herself “literate" in screenwriting. She hasn’t read screenplays she hasn’t worked on, and credits advertising’s merciless constraints for her ability to express emotion with economy. October, an impressively still and silent film, is less than 2 hours long.
People complain about the pace of a film, but pace depends on where you’re standing. “Inside a hospital, there is no day or night," Chaturvedi says. “Minutes are longer, hours are hard to determine. Nothing is moving. For Shoojit, it’s important to maintain that pace. You come home only to take a bath, change clothes, hand your visiting pass to someone else. It’s monotonous, and goes on for weeks and years. You’re in another time zone."
“Writing Piku took me to a different level of understanding relationships," she says. “Before that, my mother had passed away, my father had started staying with me for the last five years, and somewhere I understood the depth of the parent-child relationship." As they were wrapping up the movie, the team—Chaturvedi has only written for Sircar so far, and admits that he will have first right of refusal on anything she writes—decided to make a love story. Faced with her lifelong experiences as a caregiver, and the ordeal Sircar faced when his mother slipped into a coma for a few months, they decided this film would have to be about that specific love that expects nothing in return. The storytelling goal was: “If our love story could only be that selfless..."
The fascinating thing about October, I believe, is how little Dan is actually needed. Shiuli has a loving family that can afford treatment and time for her, and what Dan really provides is naive earnestness, a childish voice inside that chides the practical folk for even thinking about pulling the plug. He chooses to show up, and dedicates himself to Shiuli’s life—whatever it may be.
“Dan is probably a concept we all seek inside us," says Chaturvedi. “The basic achchai (kindness). Ek accha ladka hai (He is a good boy). What does achcha ladka mean? The emotional reaction I feel people are having—and they have really howled—is not so much about the death of a character. It is that somewhere we have become so practical and numb that this is shaking them up from that emotional inertia."
After her mother’s death, Chaturvedi couldn’t bear to face a hospital. “I had to come to accept that there is no more sick person, that she is well wherever she is. Because for years when you live that life, that becomes your normal. You need some time to detach. That life lived in a hospital, that smell."
The idea of going to a real hospital for a few weeks to shoot October on location terrified the writer. It was on a hospital visit months after the shoot that she realized how much had changed. “The hospital that used to scare me became a place of work. That’s what I told Shoojit, the biggest success after October was that the heaviness attached to the hospital all those years, it just vanished," she smiles. “It had just become a set."
After all, the love of a movie is also an unconditional love.