“You better have fun.”

On that stern note, corporate drone Suyash’s “Fun Day” begins. He works in one of Mumbai’s several steel-and-glass monoliths, and has been chosen by his company’s Human Resources Department as the latest employee to endure a day of mandated entertainment (bunking is not an option). Since people who work in glass houses tend to feel comfortable only in spaces filled with artificial air and aspiration, Suyash’s adventures do not extend beyond the environs of a mall.

Suyash’s mildly absurdist saga, titled The Fun Committee, is the first of three stories that make up Ruchika Oberoi’s accomplished debut feature Island City. The National Film Development Corporation production is one of 13 entries in the Indian competition section at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (October 29-November 5). Island City marks the latest attempt by a Mumbai filmmaker to explore the megapolis’s multiple and overlapping realities through the portmanteau format. Subtle connections exist between the tales, which explore different ways of experiencing and living in the city. “The interconnections were not important to me, I was not trying to talk about fate or destiny or chance,” Oberoi explained. “I wanted to talk about the city and its changes from different perspectives and milieus.”

The story featuring Suyash, played by the redoubtable Vinay Pathak, is a satire on the architecture of the glass-fronted chunks of concrete that architect Rahul Mehrotra calls symbols of “impatient capital”. From one of several identical cubicles, Suyash plies his trade (something to do with statistics) and rues the day was selected as the employee of the week. Through his clean and well-lit frames, cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca perfectly captures these urban warrens where white-collared individuals come to lose their selves.

In the next chapter, called Ghost in the Machine and set in a typical Maharashtrian middle class household, a housewife (Amruta Subhash) whose husband has slipped into a coma finds unexpected freedom in his absence. His void is filled by the lead character in a television stop tellingly titled Purushottam (the perfect man). Reality and fiction began to rub against each other in expected and unexpected ways.

The gentle absurdism of these two  tracks gives way to realism and observation in the third, named Contact and based on a story written by the filmmaker’s husband, Siddharth Sharma. Tannishtha Chatterjee’s industrial worker starts receiving love letters from an unknown admirer, and she begins to drift away from her loutish fiancé, played by Chandan Roy Sanyal. The quaint form of courtship complements her place of employment – a newspaper press – while her grungy neighbourhood evokes Mumbai’s fast-vanishing industrial past.

Separate lives

The stories are set in different worlds but share elements – the encounter between expectation and reality, the minor rebellions against life’s harsh truths, and the desire for escape from one’s surroundings. Despite its intense overcrowding, Mumbai remains a city of bubbles and orbs, the filmmaker observed. “Many lives intersect in Mumbai but they also often remain within their own spaces,” said Oberoi, who has previously worked as a producer in the television industry.

Among Island City’s easily recognisable self-enclosed worlds is the modern workspace, whose soul-destroying emphasis on uniformity and conformity makes an automaton out of Suyash. (Another of the movie’s themes is the impact of machines and technology on Mumbai’s residents.) “The fun committee story came from my observation of multinational banks and companies and the kind of work culture they have come up with,” the 42-year-old Film and Television Institute of India alum said. “I find this work culture, where people work long hours from morning to night, absurd. You suck the joy out of people’s lives and then reintroduce it in a highly corporatised manner.”

Her research threw up even more bizarre examples of HR enthusiasm. “There is weirder stuff than what is shown in the movie,” she said. “All I have done is heighten and sharpen the story and make it a little blacker.” Vinay Pathak was perfect for the role since he was of the right age and body type, and could perfectly carry off the largely silent role, she added.

The second story is an expansion of an anecdote concerning an acquaintance, who would not allow his family to watch television, and whose death led them to promptly purchase a television set. This episode about an opportunistic family making the most of its missing man of the house features a fake television series that closely resembles the real article. “It was tricky to find the balance so that the family doesn’t seem evil but vulnerable,” Oberoi said. “We also needed to control the TV satire in such a way that the movie doesn’t start to look like television.”

The last chapter evokes the city as Oberoi remembers it when she moved here in 1998 and lived in middle and working class neighbourhoods while collecting college degrees and work experience. “It was a great experience to live in such neighbourhoods and get to know the lives of my neighbours,” Oberoi said. “Coming from Delhi, I found Mumbai to be a liberating place – it might have been much better earlier, but it was pretty good even then.”

Grime record

Over the years, the levels of ugliness in Mumbai have matched the skyscrapers that keep shooting upwards through cramped clusters. Mumbai’s current dismal slate is inescapable on the screen, which has prompted filmmakers to either retreat indoors or escape to more suitable locations. Island City proves that Mumbai as location and muse can still throw up surprises. For instance, the last story has been shot in the atmospheric Mumbai Port Trust colony alongside Wadala station, where residential quarters for employees have been abandoned over the years even as a skywalk and one leg of the monorail network criss-cross above. The dominant colour scheme here is grey, unlike the cold, artificial lighting in the first story and the warm tones in the second.

“The texture and colour are so Bombay, and there is magic even in the griminess,” Oberoi observed. “We are not avoiding the ugliness but are embracing it, in a way. The stories are very much about the city, the noise, the ugliness, the sound and the cacophony. All this shapes our consciousness, and the search for beauty goes into some other zone – the mall, the radio, the television show.” She credited her cinematographer, Sylvester Fonsesca, for capturing the varied shades and tones that peep through Mumbai’s layers of concrete. “Sylvester is very much like a co-creator on the film – the colour scheme is his contribution,” Oberoi said.

Island City was premiered at a sidebar event called Venice Days at the Venice International Film Festival in September, where it won the Fedeora Award for best director of a debut film. The episodes have the quality of short stories, and they are circumscribed by their length and ambition. The 108-minute movie doesn’t contain any big truths about Mumbai, and some viewers might find the pay-offs in each of the stories to be fleeting, but perhaps that is the point. Every megapolis houses humble dreams and nightmares, whose expression transforms the individual but cannot shake the leviathan.
‘Island City’.