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Shoojit Sircar on ‘October’: ‘We always talk about unconditional love, but what is it really?’

The film stars Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu and will be released on April 13.

In the trailer for Shoojit Sircar’s upcoming romantic drama October, the night jasmine or the Parijat flower adds a balmy touch to the grey winters of Delhi. As the trailer opens, Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) spends a moment with the white-petalled and orange-stemmed coral jasmine as she picks it up from the ground. She is named after the flower, after all.

The trailer hints at a deeper connection. The Parijat flowers bloom at night and fall to the ground before the morning sun. Most people see the flowers only after they have fallen from their tree and graced the ground with their sweet fragrance. Shiuli’s relationship with her colleague Dan (Varun Dhawan) seems similar. Shiuli and Dan work at a luxury hotel, but Dan barely notices her even as we see her look at him from afar and smile when she sees him. He does notice her finally, but after he learns that he is the first person she asks about as she is lying on a hospital bed.

The parijat even adorns the title of the April 13 release. “Yes, the flower has a small significance in the film,” Shoojit Sircar told Scroll.in. “I don’t want to say more. In fact, the film is littered with such small significant things. Juhi [Chaturvedi] and my writing process is such that we work on a thought and borrow elements from our life experiences to explain and elaborate that thought. Here, the parijat is highlighted. You’ll find many such everyday things, things that you have seen but didn’t make a big deal of when you did.”

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October (2018).

The idea for October has been with Sircar since 2004. “It is an intensely personal story,” he said. “Juhi and I have spoken about working on a love story. I gave the brief of this story to her and then we talked about making a film. My films are not about a sequence of events – they are not about what happens after this and after this and so on. They are based on a single insight or emotion. As writers, we hold that thread and we work on it.”

October explores the idea of unconditional love, added the filmmaker who has delivered critical and commercial entertainers in the recent years. One way of explaining the director’s recent journey is to say that Sircar is steadily moving up the human body – from a tale about sperm donation (Vicky Donor, 2012) and constipation (Piku, 2015), he has now reached the delicate but critical heart.

“We always talk about unconditional love,” Sircar said. “But what is it, really? I don’t claim to be an expert on it but in October, I’ve tried to create a situation where we can really experience what it means. It is going to be a simple story. Not some complicated thriller.”

Banitha Sandhu in October. Image credit: Rising Sun Films & Kino Works Productions.
Banitha Sandhu in October. Image credit: Rising Sun Films & Kino Works Productions.

This will be the third time that Sircar is collaborating with Chaturvedi, who has written Vicky Donor and Piku. It is important for Sircar that he involve himself in the early stages of a script. “Writing is the most important process of my filmmaking,” he said. “I enjoy that the most, and I burst out with all my emotions while writing. That’s when one is creating something. Whether it is Juhi or any of my other writers, I always need to have people with a particular bent of mind – they have to understand where I’m coming from, and they need to be people who can relate to social issues and politics that I can also relate to. Then only we can write a script together.”

Chaturvedi and he share similar ideas about filmmaking too.

“The good thing is both of us don’t have any commercial interests,” he said. “In Bollywood, generally, everything is box-office driven. But we have always been fearless and not worried about who we are writing for or how we should go about it. We just write what we feel. We come up with a thread and keep bouncing ideas. We argue a lot. The making part of a film is easy for me, sometimes boring too.”

Filmmaking is also about telling stories that are personal and close to his life, Sircar revealed. “All my films are about experiences I have gone through in one way or another,” he said. “Nothing, not even a character in my film will be someone who I have not engaged with or seen or been through. While writing Piku, for example, we brought in a lot of our personal experiences.”

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Piku (2015).

Sircar began working on October while making Piku. But he cast his first actor in September 2016, when he chanced upon Banita Sandhu. “My endeavour is always to cast fresh, new faces in my films,” he said. “I got a chance to work with Banita during a commercial for Doublemint. That was also a romantic and mushy advertising film. I saw her eyes and I thought they were very expressive. The way she spoke and the age she was – she also looks like the girl next door – it all fell right into place. I showed her photo to my producer Ronnie [Lahiri] and he agreed too.”

The selection of Varun Dhawan was unexpected. “We were looking for the boy in the story all around the country and wondering who to cast,” he recalled. “I haven’t seen Varun’s films – just in bits and parts. My world and his are completely different. He had wanted to meet me for a while and somehow that wasn’t materialising. One day, in November, I was about to leave for Kolkata and he texted asking if he could come. I asked if he could come right away. He said he had just woken up and was dressed shabbily. I insisted that he come to my office the way he is. He walked in and sat in front of me. Believe me, I have lived with Dan’s character for a long time – I looked at Varun’s eyes and saw a lot of innocence in them. Also, the way he was talking, I could see that he was ready to surrender, which is the only question I ask my actors.”

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Doublemint commercial (2016).

For October, Sircar’s first task was to teach his main leads to get in touch with their calm side.

“I told them to meditate for ten minutes after they woke up each morning,” he said. “I’d warned them not to touch their phones as soon as they woke up, which Varun said his mother was very happy about. Each filmmaker has his or her process – some do workshops. My workshops involve such things and they are unorthodox and unconventional. The meditation continued for three months. I also asked Varun to find a plant in his house and sit in front of it every day for ten minutes. Just stare at it, I said. I also made the actors listen to my kind of music – the theme track of October was done almost a year before the film’s shooting began.”

Sircar lets his actors gain a sense of the world of the film he is directing by talking to them about it. “I talk a lot and sometimes the actors get really fed up,” he said. “They say they have enough in their brain’s hard discs, but my idea is to fill it up as much as I can. That’s my way of bringing them into my world. It’s a difficult process.”

Shoojit Sircar.
Shoojit Sircar.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.