Director's Cut: Shoojit Sircar on Varun Dhawan, the inspiration for October, and Mom

Anna MM Vetticad

May,12 2018 12:29:04 IST

Shoojit Sircar’s October starring Varun Dhawan is one of the best-reviewed Hindi films of 2018 so far. It is also a box-office hit. The success of this lovely film has been marred though by an unsavoury controversy that emerged the week after its 13 April release.

The aim of the section Director’s Cut on Firstpost is to have in-depth discussions with directors about content after watching their films, avoiding the generalisms inevitable in pre-release interviews. In keeping with this goal, I interviewed Sircar over three days in the week following October’s release. As it happens, hours after we wrapped up our conversation, allegations surfaced that October was plagiarised from the Marathi film Aarti – The Unknown Love Story released in August 2017.

Aarti was made by Sarika Mene, based on the story of her brother Sunny Pawar whose girlfriend of over a year, Aarti Makwana, was in a car accident and survived four years in a vegetative state, during which time her mother and Pawar took care of her. October is about a woman who has a freak accident following which her male colleague, with whom she was not in a romantic relationship, feels drawn to her life while she is in a vegetative state, and remains beside her with her family. Mene tells me she has filed complaints against October with the Screenwriters Association, Akhil Bhartiya Marathi Chitrapat Mahamandal, Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association and Mumbai Police.

I watched Aarti after the plagiarism charge emerged. Its amateurishness is cringe-worthy, but thematic similarities cannot be ignored, so I contacted Sircar to ask follow-up questions. For over two weeks now, he has shied away from calls, SMSes and e-mails.

In response to e-mails, his publicists sent me this statement already issued by October’s producers:

“We understand that there are some allegations of copyright infringement against our film October. We are creative people and have full faith in our work and our team, which has given extraordinary films like Piku, Pink etc. We have not heard of the film Aarti nor do we have full details of the matter as yet. We are sensitive towards feelings of filmmakers. We will look into this and deal with it appropriately.”

They have not yet replied to queries regarding whether October was inspired by media reports about Pawar and whether Sircar or writer Juhi Chaturvedi were aware of Pawar’s life story.

To publish or not to publish, that has been the question. This interview feels incomplete without those answers, but shelving it would be a loss since it does provide insights into the mind of a director who has been a source of such joy to film-goers for over a decade now. Sadly, in the absence of clarity from him about the plagiarism charge, some answers here (appear to) take on a different meaning from when the Q&A was recorded.

Judge for yourself. Here is my interview with Shoojit Sircar about October:

October, directed by Shoojit Sircar and starring Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu, released on 13 April. Facebook

October, directed by Shoojit Sircar and starring Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu, released on 13 April. Images from Facebook

After reading my review of October, a reader tweeted, “This sounds like The Big Sick.” How would you respond?

In 2004, after shooting my first film Yahaan (released in 2005), I experienced three-and-a-half months in a hospital. My Mom went into a coma and was in Vimhans hospital, Delhi. I spent three-and-a-half months just talking to her. Ninety-nine per cent of brain injuries and comas have similar stories. Then around 2014, my writer Juhi’s mother was in a coma and I think on ventilator for about one-and-a-half months. Secondly, I have not seen Big Sick, I’ve seen very less films, but people asked me this after seeing October’s trailer. I said, it’s not. That is my response.

You also said in pre-release interviews that newspaper reports inspired you to make this film.

That was on the comatose and brain injuries, not the story exactly. There are many if you just click on the Net. Now a lot of people are telling me, “This is my story, my father’s story, my family’s story.” So I was talking about that.

But you specifically mentioned reading something in newspapers. Was it a news development on comas?

No. Yes, I mean many documentaries were mentioned and I have read not one but many newspaper articles. It was not based on any one article. My only brief to Juhi was, “Can we create an unconditional love like a mother and child and a story?” I narrated what I have gone through. From there we started the research. How does a coma patient react? What happens to the family? The biggest thing we came to know, it happened in my case too, ki when to pull the plug. Then financial complications.

And after a week or so of the patient going into coma, everybody goes out. Then it’s a different world in the hospital that becomes the world for whoever is taking care of the patient. So these things were taken as a parameter.

At what point after your Mom’s coma did you decide to make a film on this subject?

After Yahaan we were toying with it. We touched upon it in Shoebite but that could not release. (Note: The reference is to the film Sircar began shooting with Amitabh Bachchan but did not complete.) Since then we often discussed that this particular medical science is untouched. Still doctors have not found what happens during that moment of coma. Lot of doctors say the patient can listen, lot say ki patients don’t. A lot of spiritual exercise goes on when a patient goes into coma and what brings them back. Constantly brain is fighting inside. All these things touched me. I wanted to explore that, so we tried with Shiuli and Dan.

What is the nature of the love Dan in October feels for Shiuli, if at all it can be called love? How do you love someone simply because you think she might have been interested in you before she went into a coma?

This relationship is not limited to just a boy and girl. It can be with anyone – friends, mother, son, daughter, sister, anyone. I cannot describe how they feel. Was it one-sided? Could she hear him? A lot is left unsaid. I toh don’t know what happens between them. I just felt something happened to him when he went to that ICU. He saw her like some other person lying down while everyone else saw her as a patient. What he felt, is it love? I don’t know. I kept capturing images and thought, this is what I would do if I was in that place. Do I say I’m in love with this woman? Or she loves me? One thing Dan says when his friends start shouting at him, “Tum log kya sab chance hota hai tabhi karte ho sab kuchh?” And secondly, “Who are we to decide? That she wants to live or doesn’t, it’s her choice.” This film is based on these two emotions.

How would October have been different if it had been about an equation other than boy and girl?

Banita Sandhu and Varun Dhawan in a promotional still of October. Twitter

Banita Sandhu and Varun Dhawan in a promotional still of October. Twitter

When boys are going from 20s, about to enter the worldly world, just out of college, your revolutionary mind is still intact when you’re in college. You want to do something. There is purity and innocence, your mind is saying what you want without thinking what it is, without manipulating your thoughts. We wanted to play with that age where your innocence and purity may just go away in next 2-3 years and how to hold on to that.

But would the film have been different if the comatose patient was not someone who could potentially be his girlfriend or wife? A parent or someone else?

Not much different. Maybe the treatment or storyline would have been different, but selflessness would have been same.

So this assumption some people have made that he feels romantic love for her, was that part of Juhi’s and your intentions?

(Long pause) Uh, when there is a young boy and girl involved, obviously the first parameters between them is romance and love that comes to our minds.

Not friendship?

Ya, not just friendship. I mean, it could be anything. What affects Dan is when he goes to that hospital, first he is scared, then that environment sucks him in. The hospital is a different world. When I was three-and-a-half months in hospital, I was disconnected to the world. I have spoken to many people in many hospitals. That is what they too have gone through. Dan got sucked in and he was no more scared of hospital, ICUs or the girl.

But the more obvious thing in the film was that he was affected on learning that Shiuli’s last words were, “Where is Dan?”

Incidentally he was checking ki what does that mean, “Where is Dan?” But that’s not the only thing. There are other questions. I didn’t also bother too much to find out, “Oh, this absolutely has to be the reason for this.” I left many things unsaid.

Is it the audience’s imagination that he was reacting because he thought she may have been in love with him or had a crush on him, therefore he started thinking of the possibilities if he had noticed her while she was conscious? Did you and Juhi think about that too?

Uh, no. We intentionally thought ki we will not go on that side where he thinks shayad voh mere ko pyaar karti thhi. (Laughing) If that comes out, it is very difficult to control because it is a boy and girl, but the intention was not that. Our intention was that they were indifferent towards each other.

Was she indifferent to him?

Yes. There was nothing. There must have been some shots that she looks here and there, but deliberately I tried not to make any connections.

There are at least two shots in October where she is noticing him in a way that he is not noticing her.

But the actor Banita Sandhu looks like that. (Laughs) There is maturity in her look. Even if he was a little irritated and all the time a nonsense boy, she didn’t mind it – we kept it like that. That doesn’t mean she was in love or had a soft corner for him.

But that shot where he walks away after fixing their car tyre, or when he is swatting mosquitoes and she is at the reception noticing him – we don’t see her looking like that at anyone else. What was the intention with those shots?

Just to see ki he gets punished all the time. Shiuli possibly feels for lot of other people also, not only for Dan. My intention was that. But when we were editing we also felt what you are saying: is that tonality coming in? So I said, ya maybe but let it be. But honestly the intention was to show indifference, nothing but that they are part of a gang, and slowly it cooks while in the hospital the communication happens.

You said Shiuli was looking at him because she thought he always gets punished. That could possibly be the interpretation when he is given the job of swatting mosquitoes, but not when he is walking away from their car and he doesn’t even turn around when she says bye.

I leave that to interpretation. There was one shot when she didn’t look, and in another take I said, you give the look, because you’ve just had a fight, because he’s saying you are all the time irritating. Also, even if he is irritated boy and a nuisance, he does jobs for them. Like he will fix the car. So he is really a confused boy. And she is just noticing him. I left it at that. I tried my best to not (laughs) give out that Shiuli is feeling something for Dan.

Why didn’t you remove those shots then?

(Laughs) My instinct said ki let it be. Me, my editor and Juhi discussed for almost 3 months on this 2-3 shots that you have caught on. Then last day I said, we should keep them and see what happens. I played on it actually. Difficult to explain.

Okay, through that conversation when he says, “who are we to decide?” are you taking a position on euthanasia?

No. Euthanasia has been debated as people having the right to take decision or not, but Dan’s argument was when a person is in brain injury and in coma and can’t reciprocate.

Do you have a position on euthanasia?

(Pause) This question definitely needs to be addressed, because I’ve seen people suffering, but I’ll have to study it more.

The humour in October is unexpected, considering the subject. What do you think the audience is laughing at when we see Dan’s antics?

I think Dan’s purity and innocence is what you are laughing at. What he does innocently, like the first time when the girl does not respond when he says “Doctor, ask her about Dan”, then he thinks himself that what she has done is right for them. It’s all his imagination, purity and innocence. We left you to understand that he is thinking possibly what Shiuli is thinking. Also when Juhi writes, humour on real life comes naturally.

Is the humour also an indicator that when we are going through a personal tragedy, it’s not like we are weeping at all times? There is a life-goes-on tone in the way we conduct ourselves even when life comes to a standstill.

Absolutely right. Maybe in the back of our head the tragedy is there but everywhere conducting yourself is quite normal. For Shiuli’s mother life goes on. She knows our life is going to be here for some time, so she manages coupons for the canteen, gets her children a place to study in hospital. Or in the end when the son says, “Mama, should I go for tuition or bunk?” she tells him to go. You have to, you must go on.

When Dan tells Shiuli that perhaps it was a good thing she did not indicate that she recognised him in the presence of the doctor and her family, again the hint is that he thought she might have been romantically inclined towards him.

(Laughs) Ya, there was a hint there, a beautiful hint. What he does is he puts everything in his own imagination. And he’s very sure about that girl. That was the beauty of the scene and the relationship.

How did you not see that he thought perhaps she was romantically interested?

It’s not that it’s not in my mind. I didn’t want to underline it. I thought, let it flow, let’s see the outcome. It could be this or that. I wanted to see where it goes. (Laughs)

Varun Dhawan in a still from October

Varun Dhawan in a still from October

Does Juhi join you in your editing sessions?

Yes, most of the time. During the shoot also she is always there. Because there are things you overlook as a director which are in the writer’s head.

Is it standard practice for writers to sit in on editing sessions in your industry?

I have not seen it much, but in my films yes, all the time.

Other Hindi filmmakers don’t speak a lot about their writers. How come you speak so much about Juhi?

In the West there is huge respect for writers. Still there is a debate that writers don’t get enough respect. It is important to acknowledge all the technicians in the film, especially the one who conceives it, the writers. Mostly I have worked with her so her name crops up all the time. Writing is the backbone of any film. Cinema is collaborative art and the writer’s contribution is no less than any actor or director.

In October I deliberately gave the writer’s credit in the trailer and made sure the industry notices. After the trailer a lot of people, mostly writers, said thank you that you have done this and it will pave the way for us too. Juhi herself said, I was feeling awkward because people thought ki why my name is there, writer ka toh hota nahin hai normally. So I said, may this film give the industry a little bit more sense.

So why doesn’t the Hindi film industry give writers the respect due to them?

They don’t think writing is important. They think it’s more the actor, then the director, how you shoot the film and how expensive. It is the basic IQ level. But see how Ray acknowledged writers like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay or Rabindranath Tagore.

What conversations did you have with cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhayay for October?

I asked Avik, is there any visual poetry we can bring in this film? I placed the film in Delhi because I know it best, I have lived, studied and done theatre there. And I decided in this film I will not show India Gate to represent Delhi. I thought, let’s find poetry in those foggy mornings, possibly the Metro which is part of Delhi now, so not showing regular Delhi but still establishing Delhi.

I have seen the Delhi you see in October, the flowers, the trees, the morning fog in parks. And it was important in this film to see nature and good things and bright things, in the middle of chaos.

My challenge to Avik was also, how can you create an ICU from Dan’s point of view as beautiful as possible? He is an admirer of paintings, so he showed me paintings by French and Russian artists and the American realist painter Edward Hopper. Brilliant lighting, very modern, and I said this is the right tone and tonality.

Was Delhi important for any other reason?

Understanding the milieu is important for a film, because the milieu brings nuances and the environment we transport people into. Like that scene outside the hospital at night when that person is about to help him. (Laughs through this answer) That’s a bizarre unwanted feel and unwanted person. But I have seen in Delhi those absurd people who there’s no conversation and they have a conversation. The same guy acted in Vicky Donor where Vicky is shouting “Ashima Ashima” and there’s one more guy who is also shouting “Ashima Ashima”. I have seen these bizarre people in Delhi. And the language of Delhi, the barsaatis. I was more comfortable there.

You have said you wanted Shiuli and Dan played by newcomers. Then why did you cast Varun as Dan?

We wanted a newcomer who could look innocent as Dan. For one year we auditioned almost 200 boys across India.

Varun and my trajectory is different, but one day accidentally he called and said, I want to meet. He was wanting to meet for one year and we had been trying to schedule a meeting. So I said, come quickly, I have to go for airport. He said I am not dressed properly, I said you just come in whatever way you are. While writing the film 2-3 years we lived with Dan, and when he walked in, I saw him, his eyes, the way he talked, he was clumsy, he dropped the tea, he asked “can I put my legs up on the couch?” and I said “ya, you just be comfortable.” Now I was not looking at him, I was looking at Dan. There was a joy inside. I asked if I could take a picture and sent it to Juhi and Ronnie (producer Ronnie Lahiri). I said, I feel he is Dan. I’ll send you that picture. Ronnie asked, “What about the performance you want?” I said, “Don’t worry, he is like that only.”

The picture Shoojit Sircar clicked of Varun Dhawan on their first meeting.

Did you make a conscious effort to ensure that the Varun Dhawan persona doesn’t come through in Dan? Or did he do that on his own?

It was deliberately controlled. Any scene that would happen first I will perform. Anyway I do that for actors. The kind of cinema he has come from, in every scene something has to happen. And I told him, in this film nothing has to happen. So there are scenes that he will say ki “when is the camera coming in front?” I would say, “No the take is over.” He’d say, “The camera was behind?” and he would laugh. “What are you doing? I’ve never experienced this kind of things,” he would say on the set.

(Laughs) I would say, “The woman is sitting by your side, why are you shouting? You can hear? She can hear? That’s fine.” So everything was absolutely controlled on him. After the first two weeks he got it. We live with the script for a longer time, for them to get acclimatised to the script and environment takes time. Slowly he got it.

Varun is a good actor, but in all his films he speaks with a cute bachcha intonation. This very specific Varun Dhawan trait has largely been controlled in October. Did you speak to him about it? 

Yes.

Was he offended or hurt?

No no. First day he walked for a back shot. Me and Juhi thought it was like a macho guy walking. So I said, “You are acting like a hero, we don’t want you to look like a hero.” So he did it again. He was not offended. He saw the integrity of what we want to achieve.

The great thing about him is that he laughed at himself. A person who does that can really learn. He had to unlearn many things, the unlearning was brave of him. Me and Juhi kept telling him things but he never felt offended.

The naming of Shiuli…

It was purely Juhi’s idea, this idea of shiuli phool. There’s poetry in it so I didn’t touch it. It was beautiful.

The mother explains how Shiuli was named after the flower.

In the first draft we explained that they were first posted in Kolkata then moved to Delhi, in Kolkata the girl loved the shiuli flower so she was named Shiuli. So there was a Bengali connection. Then we thought it will be too much of justifying the point, so we took off the Kolkata angle. I thought the final draft gives a clear idea why she was named shiuli and not harshringar, what does October mean, what does Shiuli mean.

What confused me is that Shiuli’s mother says the daughter liked the flower as a kid and so she was named Shiuli. Right?

Yeah, exactly.

But the naming of a child happens at birth. The kid showed her liking for the flower later, right? How did the mother name the child after a flower because she liked that flower when she grew up?

Uh, you have a point. Have a conversation with Juhi, the clarity will come.

Okay. Do you have it in you to make a film of the kind Varun usually acts in? An out and out comedy, maybe slapstick?

I may not be good at that. I am only comfortable with the movies I have done.

And you only intend to do work you are comfortable with?

Yes, absolutely.

(Related link: Anna M.M. Vetticad’s review of October)

Updated Date: May 17, 2018 11:58 AM