Sunday, October 16, 2016

Island City: Review

One of the great themes of the modern Mumbai-set indie is loneliness. It runs through films as disparate as Dhobi Ghat, That Girl In Yellow Boots and The Lunchbox, driving the narrative, forcing characters to take emotional risks. The adage that you’re never more alone than when you’re in a crowd finds its purest expression in Mumbai, where it’s almost impossible to not be in a crowd. The architecture reinforces the idea of a diminished self. Island City begins with two contrasting images of high-rises: a gleaming corporate tower and a plain residential building. The implication is simple and crushing: Every day, at work and at home, you’re one lonely window among hundreds, gazing out at a city that’s too busy to care.

Another consistent theme in Mumbai-centric cinema is the dehumanizing effect of big-city life. Ever since Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote “Milta hai yahan sab kuchh, ek milta nahin dil, insaan ka nahin kahin naam-o-nishaan” in C.I.D. in 1956, Hindi film viewers have repeatedly been warned about the soullessness that accompanies progress in Mumbai, even as they’ve been simultaneously sold on its glamour and energy. Updating Sultanpuri’s “buildings, trams, motorcars and mills” for the digital age, Island City gives us a vision of Mumbai in which human feeling has been reduced to meaningless tag lines and computer code.

In Ruchika Oberoi’s film, it’s as if the machines have taken over but everyone is yet to realize that. People take orders from disembodied voices, consult fortune-telling robots, treat TV melodramas as more real than real life. In the first of the film’s three stories, Suyash Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak) is a dedicated white-collar employee in a company whose motto—orderliness, organization, obedience—is at odds with the message its human resource team is trying to convey (fun, frolic, festivity). “You people are not having enough fun,” his boss yells. “Why!?” No wonder, then, that Suyash treats his selection for a company-sponsored outing at a mall as just another task to be completed.

Oberoi, who also wrote the film, captures the inane emptiness of corporate-speak—those voluntary salary cuts and employee-motivation schemes. This kind of darkly comic, satirical tone isn’t seen much in Hindi cinema; it hews closer to the plausible science fiction of TV shows like Black Mirror or films like Her and Ex Machina. Still, it’s only in the third—and least satisfying—segment, about a desperately unhappy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) who begins to receive letters from a secret admirer, that something resembling sci-fi is attempted. The denouement is a bit too clever, though, and it doesn’t work as well as the shock of the first story’s climax, which makes emotional, if not logical, sense.

The middle segment is close to perfection. It begins with a doctor telling Sarita Joshi (Amruta Subhash) that her husband is in a coma. She doesn’t seem too upset, and we learn in a series of flashbacks that the husband was a horrible person, berating her and her mother and their two children. With him out of the house, they’re actually getting to enjoy life. They buy a new TV and become addicted to a kitschy melodrama called "Purushottam" (that this show could as easily be a parody of Indian prime-time TV 10 years ago as today’s programming is a dispiriting thought). Things take a delightfully dark turn when the show’s paragon of a protagonist goes into a coma, and the Joshis end up more concerned about his fate than that of their own husband and father.

There are inspired touches throughout the film, like when Sarita’s mother, sprinkling holy water around the house, sees the comatose body on screen and showers a few drops on the TV, or Suyash’s employers and an altogether more sinister organization having the same motto. Oberoi’s scenario-writing is so good that one wishes her ear for dialogue was as sparkling; there are too many clich├ęs (“Kitni baar kaha hai ki apni akal mat lagao”; “Honi ko kaun taal sakta hai?”) floating around, even for a satire. Also, apart from Pathak, Subhash and Ashwin Mushran, the performances are somewhat heavy-handed and lacking in wit. But what Island City achieves is far more important than where it trips up. As a tonally tricky, slyly subversive mood piece, it finds itself in a very small group of Hindi films. It’s also an intriguing new entry in the long tradition of films that explore the spiritual heartache of living in Mumbai.

This review appeared in Mint.

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