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Commerce Meets Indie: ‘October’ And ‘Blackmail’ Show Bollywood How It’s Done

Abhinav Deo’s ‘Blackmail’ and Shoojit Sircar’s ‘October’ are two brave films that challenge our hopelessly sentimental audiences

We, as a people, are addicted to sentimentality, a word that has lost its literary respectability of the 19th century. Sentimental is now a patronising adjective, but our films thrive on it. Actually, I remember reading decades ago of how films were commended — by distributors and financers of the Telugu industry — for “sentiments.”

Now, sentimental is different from emotional, though both refer to feelings. Sentiment can be shallow and manipulative, whereas genuine emotion touches something deep within. It becomes lazy film-making, relying on old tropes. It is, of course, a thin line, separating sentimentality (even of a superior kind) and the truly emotional. One person’s sentiment can be another‘s kitsch.

Abhinav Deo knows that the sentimental is poison for black humour. Blackmail is like strong black coffee, sending us on a caffeine high. Even the protagonist Dev (Irrfan) is kept under an objective lens. Irrfan is perfect for the sales executive, bored out of his skull, with his impassive face and speaking eyes. He has to find innovative ways to sell toilet paper to people who believe in washing with water, suffering the inanities and laboured scatological references of his stupid boss DK (Omi Vaidya reprising his 3 Idiots accent), who is puffed up by delusions of his own brilliance. Dev is also a bored husband. He stays late at work, picks the photograph of a colleague’s wife — there is a roster of sorts here — and vamooses into the toilet. Suggestive shots of an empty tap finally yielding a drop recur. It is a challenge to Dev’s ingenuity when he finally takes the picture of the boss’ wife, after the boss installs a camera in his cabin after these repeated thefts. Dev goes home to dinner waiting to be warmed up while his pretty wife Reena (Kirti Kulhari) is asleep.

Abhnav Deo

Dev has his spy hole, a chink in the wall behind a pickle jar. Is he always suspicious, because of the passionless marriage? Befittingly, when he gets home early with roses (stolen from a cemetery, for a nice gothic touch), he sees her in bed with an old flame Ranjit (Arunoday Singh, convincingly clueless as a brainless jock) — a stud given to admiring his own body, married to a rich woman (Divya Dutta makes you love her Dolly as a bitchy alcoholic) who calls him a dog in inventive ways. So goes on the cycle of infidelity.

Instead of confrontations and righteous indignation, Dev follows the adulterer to his bungalow and starts the game of blackmail — EMIs, credit card payments and sundry bills dancing before his eyes. This sets off the chain of blackmail, when he ends up with the money he gave his wife. Everybody is broken. It is a chain reaction that implodes in delightfully unexpected ways — three deaths: one is surreally comic, another accidental but conveniently so and the climactic one, plotted meticulously to eliminate two threats together. We are put in a position in which we are delighted by wickedness gone awry, and relationships end with a swipe on a smartphone, after a minimal pause. It’s a loaded pause with no room for remembered romance and futile regrets and patchwork reconciliations. Blackmail is ruthless in its attitude to holy cows and marital vows. Everything is kosher for a send up. For an Indian film, it echoes the Hollywood movie The War of the Roses — a mordantly witty take on a bitter divorce battle — in its celebration of amorality as a means to survive an amoral world.

Even more unexpected is the scrupulous avoidance of kitschy sentimentality in Shoojit Sircar’s October. Its theme is a prime candidate for mawkish excess. It could so easily have been a facile tearjerker. Juhi Chaturvedi’s script and Sircar’s direction, casting action/romantic hero Varun Dhawan as the clueless drifter Dan, turns expectations on its head. It is not even a conventional love story. It is more the making of a young man with no purpose, that floats along with no purpose where nothing seems to affect him: be it the irate supervisor who catches him shirking work or his fellow trainees who cover up for him. Dan (Varun Dhawan looking young and irritatingly careless) is an intern at a five-star hotel, usually relegated to vacuuming the corridors for being casual about his given duties. Shiuli Iyer (Banita Sandhu) is a colleague, conscientious, and you can visualise the disbelieving girl rolling her eyes at Dan’s unprofessionalism that seems congenital. Chaturvedi’s cross-cultural relationships (Punjabi-Bengali basically) now take the Punjabi-South Indian route without stressing the differences, rather underlining the commonality of life experiences. It unfurls the unexpected bonding between two startlingly dissimilar individuals.

Shoojit Sircar

An impromptu get together — where Dan is absent — ends in her falling off the parapet from the third floor. Sircar spends time with establishing the hotel routine and Dan’s behaviour, the dynamics between fellow interns in scenes that progressively get shorter and leaner after Shiuli ends up comatose in a hospital. Dan’s visits to the hospital are initially formal and his remarks seem insensitive but honest. As he interacts with her family — Gitanjali Rao, the brilliant animation film-maker, gets under the skin of Shuili’s stoic mother, an IIT prof — Dan’s involvement deepens. Like a sponge, he absorbs medical information, hospital routine, and ways of the staff. He casually learns that Shiuli’s last words were, ‘Where is Dan?’ That triggers curiosity, and you can visibly see how involved he gets in Shiuli’s rehab. He even smuggles in a beautician to thread her eyebrows —something that no one else has given a thought to. It is Dan gathering fallen parijat blossoms (Shiuli is the Bangla name for the flower) to keep beside her head that makes her nostrils twitch, thus starting the tenuous process of communication.

The moods are fluid — from stark fear to upbeat hope to resignation to lyricism — in tune with changing seasons and locales. Dan is sacked and he goes to Manali to manage a small establishment catering to foreign trekkers. Avik Mukhopadhyay’s painterly camera and Chandrashekhar Prajapati’s precise editing give us scenes of casual, undeliberated beauty, where not a frame exceeds its impact. Lyricism can wax at length, but to get the compressed eloquence of haiku is deeply evocative. It makes you remember the best of Romantic poets, and Keats’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Even more apt is DG Rossetti’s concluding stanza of Autumn Song: Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf How the soul feels like a dried sheaf Bound up at length for harvesting, And how death seems a comely thing In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Good cinema takes you back to remembered poems, snatches of prose and recollections of paintings. Sircar accomplishes it in this film that is so different from the rambunctious, comic spirit of Vicky Donor and the constipated and conflicted road trip of Piku. Whatever triggered the idea of October — there is a vague charge of plagiarism by a Marathi film-maker — what evolves is an exquisite narrative in which healthy commonsense is mixed with poetic undertones, to leave you deeply moved. An elegy that is also elevating.