Shoojit Sircar’s October, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and the mystery of pure romanticism

Baradwaj Rangan

Apr 23, 2018 12:26:31 IST

When a rapturously received film doesn’t quite incite the same kind of rapture in you, it can make you feel somewhat guilty – especially if you are a critic. I felt this guilt, recently, while watching (and later, reviewing) Shoojit Sircar’s October. It is such a different film, with a mainstream star (Varun Dhawan) taking on such a different role, and the rhythms of the writing (Juhi Chaturvedi) are so different... I wanted to love it, and I felt guilty about merely liking parts of it: the sum of these beautiful parts did not add up to a satisfying whole. It was a tough film to write about, because putting my finger on why exactly I had these reservations was... difficult. There’s so much left unsaid, that saying something precise about the film turned into a formidable challenge.

So after writing my review, I re-watched Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002), to see if this film I love (I think it’s one of his flat-out masterpieces) could tell me more about the film I merely liked. Talk to Her tells a vaguely similar story, about two men – Benigno and Marco – who strike up a friendship in the hospital where two women – Alicia and Lydia – lie comatose. As in October, we don’t get too much backstory about the women, but we do know what they did before they ended up in this state (Alicia was a dancer, Lydia a bullfighter), and this adds an invisible layer of emotion. This is not a whose-plight-is-sadder comparison with October’s heroine, Shiuli, a hotel management trainee who ends up in a coma. But to see two women whose identities were defined by movement, now lying so still...

It’s little things like this. From this premise, Almodóvar takes off on tangents. One story unfolds between Lydia and Marco. This is a fairly conventional love story. Another story unfolds between Alicia and Benigno, who is a nurse. Also, a stalker. Through his window, he can see Alicia in her dance class. Almodóvar doesn’t spell out the attraction (the why) for us. But after slipping into a coma, when Alicia ends up under Benigno’s care, it’s a dream come true. He speaks to her as though she were his wife, as though she were awake. Almodóvar complicates our emotions by making Benigno like his name, a benign creature, apparently incapable of hurting a fly – and yet, here he is, violating Alicia’s space without knowing her feelings about him.

A similarly complicated scene occurs in October, when Dan – Shiuli’s colleague – brings with him a beautician, in order to shape Shiuli’s eyebrows. We like Dan. He, too, is... benign. And yet, here he is violating Shiuli’s space without knowing her feelings about him. The childlike nature of Dan and Benigno make us not want to hate them – they are not evil people, after all. But if Alicia or Shiuli were awake, and Dan and Benigno did something like this, what would we think? Talk to Her goes to an especially icky place when Benigno rapes (the comatose) Alicia, which Almodóvar shows indirectly, through a silent movie (see clip above) whose protagonist takes a potion that makes him shrink, and finally, he’s small enough to enter his girlfriend’s vagina. He disappears into it, into her.

Some viewers are sure to find Benigno a monster, but listen to how Almodóvar saw the character. “Benigno had become like a friend of mine, although I wrote the character. Sometimes, you don’t want to see things that your friends do. I didn’t want to show Benigno doing what he did in the clinic. I also did not want to show the audience that image. So I put the silent movie in there to hide what was happening.” There’s another layer to Benigno, the question whether he is gay or straight. Almodóvar said, “The point about Benigno’s character is that he is completely innocent, in the sense that he does not have experience. He lives in another world. This world is parallel to the real world but it has its own rules. Sexual orientation probably does not exist in this world.”

This could also refer to October. “[Benigno] could have probably gone for any object of desire but it just happens that he becomes enamoured of that body in the hospital. Strangely enough, it is the film that brings that onto him. The film makes him recognise his desire and makes it real for him. That’s why he is so shaken up by the film. It suddenly makes it real for him.” October, on the other hand, doesn’t “explain” Dan. Whatever is going on in his head, perhaps even he would be unable to put into words. But I think of Dan as a Benigno-like character, the way Almodóvar puts it: “completely innocent... does not have experience... lives in another world.”

And what about the fact that Alicia and Shiuli have no say in the matter? Here’s Almodóvar again. “I am sure that you don’t understand your wife completely... There is a lack of understanding in almost every love story... [Benigno] feels absolutely compensated by taking care of this woman and being with her every moment of the day... In any case, for there to be a loving relationship it is only necessary for one person to love. For there to be communication within a couple, it is enough for there to be only one person who communicates or who really wants to communicate. Even though a couple consists of two people, if one of the people in a couple puts all their effort into moving a couple along they will move along. All of this relates to pure romanticism.”

This is enormously controversial, but also enormously human. Relationships are complicated. On the one hand, there are all these man-made rules, without which society would break down. (Imagine everyone running amok in the name of “pure romanticism.”) On the other hand, there’s the empathy that allows us to see what Dan (the scene with the beautician) and Benigno do as a form of love, even if man-made rules tell us this is wrong. October and Talk to Her would make a fascinating double bill. Regardless of which film you prefer, both contain ellipses that make us want to know about essentially unknowable things. Both are about the mysteries of human behaviour, which, in a way, is what we call life.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: May 08, 2018 12:00:35 IST