“Where is Dan?” It’s a question that confuses the protagonist, Dan (Varun Dhawan), as he sees Shiuli (newcomer Banita Sandhu), the young woman who asked it, lying comatose. Dan’s investigation begins and so does a journey in which he grapples with life, love, work and death, and eventually comes of age.
Shoojit Sircar’s fourth feature begins by defining the two characters and the contours of the relationship they share as two understudies at a five-star hotel. Shiuli excels at work in various departments; Dan is frustrated at being reduced to cleaning jobs. If Shiuli is the front-bencher with a goody-two-shoes demeanour, Dan is the troublemaking backbencher teasing her. They don’t despise each other, but it’s not love either.
Until Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi draw attention to Shiuli’s glances, and her scant exchanges with Dan. Could there be a possibility that she has a soft spot for the not-so-perfect Dan? It’s here that Chaturvedi and Sircar take off the beaten path, albeit one scattered with the beautiful, fragrant and fleeting shiuli flowers. The flowers are a motif throughout, their presence never without significance.
The drama begins when 20-year-old Shiuli meets with a freak accident in the hotel. Dan joins her family, which includes her IIT professor mother (animator and filmmaker Gitanjali Rao), in the moment of grief, uncertainty and challenges.
Juhi Chaturvedi’s canvas on young romance takes shape primarily in the encounters at the hospital and the scenes between Dan and his friends, and what emerges is a work full of meaningful gestures, subtle details and tender loving care. October is not your straightforward love story, in that there is no guy trying to win over a girl or even the girl’s parents. Instead, its quest is to define love itself.
Here, it mostly unfolds in silence or against Shantanu Moitra’s moving background score or through ordinary but layered exchanges. More importantly, love to Chaturvedi is about being there when it matters most, and not expecting much in return.
To Varun Dhawan goes the job of depicting Dan’s confusion, which blossoms into concern and then into the gradual reckoning. Those who have seen Dhawan in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania and Judwaa 2 are obviously in for a surprise, as they see him in a more restrained avatar. In Chaturvedi’s Dan, Dhawan gets to play one of his most complex roles, a young man who becomes too invested in a relationship with little returns. Whether it is Dan asking random questions to the hospital receptionist or making small talk with Shiuli’s nurse (Nimmi Raphael), Dhawan charms here in a largely measured performance.
There’s more to the world Chaturvedi creates. Like in her earlier films, Vicky Donor and Piku, the family plays a pivotal role here too. Chaturvedi looks at the pathos Shiuli’s family endures without melodrama, as they come to terms with a tragedy. Gitanjali Rao is poignant as the single mother taking the tough calls and making ends meet, her eyes speaking volumes as the camera lingers on her.
But then life goes on, as evident in Shiuli’s siblings who carry study work to the hospital, or in how the visits of Dan and Shiuli’s helpful but practical friends, Manjit (Sahil Vadoliya) and Isha (Isha Chaturvedi), become fewer as the hospital stint becomes longer.
Also making his presence felt in a brief role is Prateek Kapoor as Asthana, the hotel manager who is sympathetic towards Dan.
The passage of time, an essential part of the story, is captured through changing seasons in Delhi. October can make audience restless, despite the fact that Chaturvedi is able to find moments of mirth in what’s essentially a gloomy setting. There are a couple of narrative leaps that don’t add much context to Dan’s personal journey.
October reminded me most of Michael Haneke’s Amour, which centres on an ageing married couple and highlights the need for companionship, nurturing and patience to sustain a relationship. Like it, October is an affecting film, albeit the emotional rewards here are not as devastating.
Yet, in Bollywood, where romance is largely experienced through Arijit Singh songs and in a jubilant manner, October brings to us its lesser-seen, quieter and heartbreaking side, which is equally potent.