31st October review: A hollow, sloppy film on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots
X happened. Then Y. And then Z. Director Shivaji Lotan Patil’s 31st October is nothing more than a parade of facts about the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October, 1984. It is a perfect example of a film on a sensitive issue completely bereft of imagination and subtlety.
31st October stars Soha Ali Khan and Vir Das as Davinder Singh and Tejinder Kaur, a happy Sikh couple living with their three children in West Delhi. She is stern but loving, he a virtual saint. She feeds him and argues with him about his excessive goodness. He walks an extra mile for his Hindu neighbour. Everyone is nice to everyone and the world is all sweet and honey and sugar ‘n’ spice ‘n’ all things nice until Beant Singh and Satwant Singh shoot Indira at point-blank range.
The story opens on the morning of the PM’s murder and everything in the early scenes is an in-your-face set-up for what is to come. So, when we see Davinder run out of blood pressure meds, we know he will later be weak without medication in the middle of the pogrom. Since one of his little sons repeatedly asks him about the significance of a Sikh’s long hair and turban, we know at some point they will be driven to shear their heads to hide their identity from mobs.
As if the lack of nuance is not bad enough, 31st October subjects us to mediocre production quality, third-rate dialogue writing and bad acting. An array of terrible extras are rolled out for the bit parts and even for significant satellite roles. Two irritating girls are cast as the lead couple’s sons. Sezal Shah is unbearable as a shy young Sikh woman gazing googly-eyed at a camera-wielding NRI. She cannot act for peanuts. Others are worse – so bad in fact, that peanuts look profound in comparison.
I’ve always enjoyed watching Vir Das on screen, but his facial expressions in 31st October make me wonder whether what I have liked so far has been the suitability of his personality to comedy, the genre that has dominated his filmography so far. This film is not funny, it is not meant to be funny, and his expressions seem incongruous on the riot victim Davinder whose Hindu friends put their lives on the line to save him and his family. Soha Ali Khan does a fair job of his wife Tejinder who witnesses horrors that no human being could possibly recover from. Although her Punjabi accent slips on occasion, she makes their interactions tolerable.
The supporting cast contributes greatly to this film’s overall air of tackiness. The only two who rise above the mediocrity surrounding them are the always-reliable Deepraj Rana and Vineet Sharma, playing men who risk everything so that Davinder, Tejinder and their kids might live.
31st October is based on the experiences of a Devender Pal Singh Sachdeva and Tejinder Sachdeva. The credits call it “a tribute by (producer) Harry Sachdeva”. In truth, this film does them an injustice.
The Sikhs who were targeted after Indira’s death from her bullet wounds, deserve a better homage than this. What the producer and his director have put together instead is a disservice to a community that is still being denied justice by the authorities 32 years after humanity died on the streets of India’s Capital.
In the moments preceding the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in the US during World War II in Michael Bay’s 2001 Hollywood film Pearl Harbor, pretty little girls with golden curls are shown playing together in slow motion against a picturesque backdrop. This is the kind of offensive stupidity that distinguishes cliched films on violence from the ones with depth. If those children were not picture perfect, would their fate be less tragic or Japan’s actions less condemnable?
31st October slathers bowlfuls of treacle on to the ordinary Sikhs who are attacked by rioters. Why? Would the butchery have been any less inexcusable if the victims had not been uniformly fantastic people, kind, gentle and dedicated to the service of others? In one scene, the suggestion that some Sikhs celebrated after Mrs Gandhi’s killing is brushed aside. Why? Does the filmmaker realise that by not acknowledging this element in the ugliness that pervaded Delhi following her assassination, he unwittingly implies that individuals who lit candles and distributed sweets that day could rightfully be seen as a justification for the slaying of innocent Sikhs?
Glossing over uncomfortable facts does more harm than good to survivors, even when you do so to please and appease them. Human beings do not have to be flawless or belong to a flawless community to deserve the right to live, to not to be robbed, to not be sexually violated, to not be forced to witness the brutalisation of their loved ones.
This kind of self-defeating storytelling plays into the hands of people like that chap in the hall where I watched this film who turned to another during the interval and said: “Ab agar ek qaum ko lagega ki voh kuchh bhi kar sakta hai, toh doosra qaum badla lega hi.” (Now if one community thinks they can do anything, then the other is bound to take revenge.)
There are many people like him in the world out there who are filled with hate. They are among the million reasons why the human species’ history of massacres needs to be chronicled repeatedly by cinema. Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered, raped and driven out of their homes in the riots of October-November 1984. Their story needs to be told with delicacy and intelligence, not with the sloppiness and hollowness that are the hallmark of 31st October.
Apart from the fact that actors styled to resemble Congress politicians H.K.L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar are shown engineering the riots, there is little worth noting in this film.