31st October, written and produced by Harry Sachdeva and directed by Shivaji Lotan Patil, is clearly a passion project. Care has been taken to depict the horrors suffered by Delhi’s Sikh population after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, at her residence. The victims of the killings, rapes and looting that followed are explored in the film through ordinary people going about their business. Devinder (Vir Das) and his wife Tejinder (Soha Ali Khan) engage in familiar early morning banter as they pack their twin sons to school. Tejinder sets out to the market, leaving her infant daughter in the maid’s care. Devinder takes off for work his scooter.
The extended opening sequences establish how slowly news travelled in the age before satellite channels and cellphones. As the import of Gandhi’s assassination trickles in through the radio, shutters are downed, passions are inflamed, and unidentified Congress Party leaders modelled on the alleged real-life perpetrators Jagdish Tytler and HKL Bhagat unleash mobs to attack the Capital’s Sikhs.
From this point on, 31st October is one long and trying montage of corpses, burning gurudwaras and Sikhs running for their lives. Devinder and Tejinder are saved by the superheroic efforts of their Hindu friends, while others are not so fortunate. In the best episode, a drunkard gives Tejinder’s brother-in-law shelter, extorts money, his watch and his gold chain from him, and then coolly hands him over to the men with the swords.
The deeply amateurish acting by adults and children alike – the singsong voices of the child actors are particularly grating – and the absence of a context for the assassination unfortunately serve to diminish the significance of the problem. The events that preceded the assassination, including Gandhi’s crackdown on Sikh militancy in Punjab and her ill-advised military operation against the Golden Temple in Amritsar, are barely mentioned.
The earnest and hackneyed writing does not help. Devinder is a stock do-gooder character, whose plight is foretold by the halo that floats above his turban. Vir Das, sorely miscast as the good-natured Sikh, does little to make Devinder worth fighting for. At times, Das seems to have wandered in from one of the stand-up routines or comedies with which he is better associated. He strains to depict Devinder as a serious family man with a great deal at stake, and his snigger-worthy performance and misplaced facial expressions shatter the otherwise morose mood that hangs over the film all the way till the climax.
The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 have produced many books, investigative reports and a handful of films. Shonali Bose’s Amu, in which Konkona Sensharma’s adopted daughter realises that her parents died in the riots, remains one of the more intelligent movies about those times. We need more films on this dark chapter in Indian history, but not the likes of 31st October.
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