Towards the end of the month of October in Delhi, the night jasmine - ‘raat ki rani’ - ends its short life. White blossoms lie scattered across gardens and walls and roads. This movie is a delicately composed ‘raag’ to the brevity of this flower’s life, as it flutters down at nighttime from the tree. That jasmine flower tree is also sometimes called ’the tree of sorrow’. A more appropriate title for a film, you will rarely find.
As in nature, so with people. At a posh hotel in the bustling city of New Delhi, a group of hotel management trainees go through the grind at the reception, the kitchen, at room service and in the laundry room. Even though some of them share apartments, they are too busy to bond and connect emotionally with each other. Only for brief moments, between errands, do they find the time and energy to acknowledge their common stress and predicament.
Danish (Varun Dhawan) is the most temperamental of the trainees and is not attuned to the needs of his job. He is unable to adjust to the notion that it is a service industry he is working in and that hotel guests are like Maharajas whose feathers are not to be ruffled under any circumstances. The hotel staff are underlings. So his boss, in exasperation, transfers the unruly Danish from one area of the hotel to the next. His colleague, Shiuli (Banita Sandhu), looks out for him often and keeps an eye on his moods. It is his nickname, ‘Dan’, that is part of the last sentence that she utters before she falls over backwards from a ledge, shortly after midnight, during a New Year’s Eve drinking break that the trainees take at the hotel. She asks: ‘Where is Dan?’
The rest of the film divides itself between the hospital to which the broken body and comatose mind of Shiuli is taken to, and the hotel in which her colleagues are distraught and in grief. Dan, in particular, is dumbstruck by the accident and constantly visits the unconscious Shiuli at the ICU. Over days and weeks he finds meaning and a certain stability in his life during these visits and bonds with her family, turning himself into a rock of support for Shiuli’s mother (Gitanjali Rao) and her two younger siblings. In the process, he neglects his job, and even though the hotel management is aware of the reason for his dereliction of duty, they gradually lose patience with his hospital obsession.
The composition of the script has a hindustani classical music rhythm to it, with a slight change of melody as the mood alters. The design is unlike sequential narrative, and more like delicate shifts in musical motifs. Ironically, the background music used to indicate changes in mood is not Hindustani but Western, a haunting score by Shantanu Moitra, the finest heard in any Hindi film for a long time.
The story and dialogue by Juhi Chaturvedi, while original in its unique Indian setting, has many influences from International cinema, particularly Almodover’s ‘Talk To Her’, in which a male nurse talks to his comatose patient, just like Dan does with Shiuli. Later, a pithy line is taken from Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’, an Iranian movie about a man who faces a breakdown in his marriage because he refuses to go abroad and leave his father behind, an ailing Alzheimer’s patient. When told that his father does not even recognise him, he says that doesn’t matter, as long as he can recognise his father. The same line is used in ‘October’ when a family discussion takes place on pulling the plug on Shiuli.
Varun Dhawan gives us an edgy but consistent performance in the lead role. Banita Sandhu is simply brilliant in her scenes of absolutely blankness as a comatose woman, interspersed with microscopic facial and eye movements as she appears to show signs of recovery.
This is a quiet film, beautifully art directed in the hospital and at the hotel, with a lovely sense of the seasons in New Delhi, with cinematic compositions that anchor you in the world of the well and the sick. It is a film that makes you weep at the ebbing away of life.
In the context of the hard and knotty films we are often subjected to, here is a little gem, a ‘raat ki rani’ with such fragrance that it can either wake you up or put you to sleep.