Problem. In cinema as in life, noble intentions are just not enough. It isn’t enough to approach a subject of political significance or to open up wounds which will perhaps never heal. For that a film needs to be passionately directed, convincingly written and serve as a cautionary tale for generations to come.
Unfortunately October 31st directed by Shivaji Lotan Patil and written by Harry Sachdeva turns out to be half-boiled account of the immediate aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. The outcome is neither of great archival value nor a hard-hitting depiction of the events which led to 2,100 deaths in Delhi. It was alleged that the violent backlash was perpetrated by some Congress leaders in collusion with the police.
There is little by way of analysis, background information (the shocking Operation Bluestar is barely discussed) or a macro-view of the incident. Rather the script opts to be safely anecdotal, focusing on the plight of a middle class Sikh couple, Davinder Singh (Vir Das) and Tejinder Kaur (Soha Ali Khan) who are caught in the crossfire of riots and wanton killings. Davinder is an employee with the Delhi Electrical Supply Undertaking, Tejinder is a homemaker. Their twin sons have been trundled off to school; an infant daughter is added supposedly to heighten the emotional quotient.
And you know the drill. If there’s a riot, a family is bound to be torn asunder. Think of Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) and Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania (2007) which were needless to point out, far superior to the assembly-line Bollywood products not only in cinematic terms but were underscored by sharp political criticism between the lines. Sorry to say but amounts to nothing more than some two hours of staged sound, fury and auto-rickshaws ablaze.
The plot, or whatever little there is of it, is concerned with the rescue mission of the beleaguered couple by their friends and acquaintances, to point out that the spirit of humanism does and can shine in the face of adversity. Be it the endangered Sikhs or Hindus who’re on the rampage, ultimately it is the human bond which triumphs. For sure that’s a valid point to make at any given time.
Moreover the consequence of the Prime Minister’s assassination is more than a valid story to tell, even belatedly. Snag is that director Shivaji Lotan Patil, who bagged the National Award for Best Director for his Marathi film Dhag (2014), is clearly not in his element here. The short-cut of montages is used excessively, and the shot takings frequently border on the hurried as if the unit was stressed out to somehow complete the film. By the way reportedly had to contend with a round of predictable objections from the Censor Board. Maybe that did affect the final quality of the film.
The supporting ensemble doesn’t yield any striking characterization, alas. Unless you count a boozed-out nutter who pretends to shelter a man on the run, extorts money, wrist watch and gold chain, only to hand him over to the rioting mob. Now there’s a touch which reminds you in a way of Anurag Kashyap’s Black (a marvelous work, 2007) in which a cop chasing a goon is struck by fatigue and hunger. And there was that other moment when a cop helps himself to a banana to renew his energy. Apart from the aside on the drunkard, how you wish there were some more quirky moments like these in . Really.
Throughout you keep hoping against hope that the director, the writer, and the cinematographer, will get their act together, make you empathise and care about the couple and their children confronted with hate in the time of assassination. No go. The tempo keeps slackening and the lead actors don’t command your attention. Clearly Vir Das is hopelessly miscast. Soha Ali Khan exudes sincerity. Full stop.
All said and endured, means well – undeniably its heart is in the right place – but that’s about it. As a movie-watching experience, it leaves you neither shaken nor stirred.
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