Happy Varun Dhawan Day! October, Varun’s Art Film

This was a confusing film.  It felt like it was going one way and then it went the other.  Most of all though, it feels like it fully grasps accidents and recovery in a way that most melodramatic films shy away from.

There is something about a hospital.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time hanging around in hospitals due to various family emergencies (strangely, because my family is so healthy.  Things which would kill other people straight out just result in 8 weeks in the hospital for us), and I came out of it really liking them.  Everyone is kind, there is a strange sense of being at home as you get used to the route to the cafeteria, have your favorite seat in the waiting room, get to know all the nurses, and so on.  Most of all, there is the wonderful sense of clarity, everyone is focused on just one thing (getting the patient better), and the choices you are given tend to be a series of simple decisions.  Not easy decisions necessarily, but the doctor will give you the option of this treatment or that treatment and all you have to do is pick between them.  Very different from regular life, where you have to agonize over millions of possibilities.  Your whole life narrows down to just the patient, complete tunnel vision.  Everything else left outside those doors, your career worries and your friends and even the rest of your family, it all just drops away.  It’s a retreat from the world.

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That, to me, is the greatest triumph of this film.  Capturing that sense of clarity and intensity mixed with boredom and repetition.  And the strange bonds that appear in this situation, the friendships from propinquity with the nurses, the person in your life who ends up being the one you can rely on, the shift in your family as you adjust to having one missing part.

The problem is, the rest of the film doesn’t know exactly what it wants to do with all this.  The hospital sequences are so powerful and so unique, but I’m not sure what they were supposed to mean in the context of the film.  It’s not exactly a love story, or a coming of age story.  There’s some degree of uncertainty that was built into the film, but there is a larger degree that, to me, feels like they just didn’t know what they wanted to do with it.

And, unfortunately, part of that uncertainty damages Varun’s performance.  His character’s first scenes are brilliant, the whole first 15-20 minutes of the film establishing who he is are perfect.  And perfectly related to his off-screen persona, at least as it is sometimes perceived.  Lazy, entitled, selfish, ungenerous.  And all done with perfect subtlety, you can see how he himself never sees anything he does as wrong, never feels himself to be at fault. How he can even fool other people around him with his perfectly reasonable arguments until they have to actually work with him every day and put up with him.

I was excited to see what the director Shoojit Sircar would do with Varun after that, moving on from this brilliant beginning.  But then he seemed to not be sure where he wanted to go and what happened next.  And so Varun’s performance lost certainty as well.  We couldn’t read what was happening in his character’s head and why.  He ended up hitting a consistent tone of “uncertain”.

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It is still an excellent performance partly because there are no particular notes to it.  Varun manages to strip out obvious emotions, reactions, all of that, without making his character feel bland and empty.  He is still a real natural person, just without any motivation that the audience can see driving him.

It’s hard to write this review without giving spoilers, because there are several obvious interpretations of the film and the characters that would make sense of all of my critiques.  I just don’t think they quite fit, there is always a moment or a line that makes them not exactly right.

I guess that is the greatest accomplishment of the film, a movie that takes a simple seemingly straight-forward story and aggressively makes it un-straightforward.  There are no simple choices, no clear directions, nothing of the familiarity and simplicity that drives our hero to the hospital within the film is present in the narrative surrounding him.

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Whole plot in one paragraph:

Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu are part of a class of trainees in a hospitality program.  They are all upper class educated types, forced to work at menial jobs as they learn the hospitality business from the ground up until they finish their training period and can move on to managerial jobs.  Banita is smart and serious and enjoys her job.  Varun is lazy and entitled and resents having to do menial labor.  He makes fun of her when she gives the right answer in a staff meeting, she complains that he never makes an effort in anything, they are close acquaintances thanks to working together for months but no more than that.  And then one night when Varun is skipping out on training to visit his parents, the trainees have a party and Banita slips and falls off a roof.  Varun returns to learn she is already in the hospital in a coma.  He visits her, and the next day learns that her last words were “Where is Dan [Varun]?”  It bothers him, he visits her again, and slowly starts spending all his free time at the hospital.  Banita’s mother, Gitanjali Rao, is a widow with two other young children.  She starts talking to Varun and leaning on him simply because he is there.  Varun is now skipping so much time that he is at risk of being thrown out of the training program and thereby losing his parents’ security bond they put up before his training started.  His friends (some of whom were closer to Banita than he was before the accident) can’t understand his obsession.  Finally his mother comes when he has been thrown out of the program and asks Gitanjali to let him go and live his own life.  Gitanjali sends Varun away, he takes a job as a manager at a remote small mountain guesthouse.  Months later, he learns that Banita had another seizure and is not doing well in physical therapy.  He comes back to Delhi and helps Gitanjali bring Banita back home.  Banita is still struggling, unable to move more than one arm, unable to speak, working on tasks as simple as grasping a ball.  Varun talks to her and lifts her in and out of bed at night.  He takes her to a part and asks her why she said “where is Dan?” just before she fell.  And in response she struggles to say his name, “Dan”.  He takes her back home, and that night she has another heart attack and dies.  Some months later, Varun goes to visit Gitanjali again.  Varun is back to living in Delhi, managed to finish his training on a second try and is now working at the hotel as a sous chef.  Gitanjali is planning to leave the city, move back to her home in the south.  She asks Varun to take care of the night blooming Jasmine tree in their yard, the same tree Banita was named after, her favorite flower.  Which, like her, only blooms briefly (in October) and then the flowers fall and die.

I was just looking for clips and songs to illustrate my last review and what I find fascinating is that the song videos (none of which are in the film) fill in a plot that we do not get within the film itself.  Even the director’s interviews, about “unconditional love” and “honesty and innocence”, give something that is just not clear within the film itself.  Maybe that is an artistic choice, but I think it is an odd one, and possibly a bad one.  If you wanted to tell a love story, then you should tell a love story, make it ever so slightly more obvious what you wanted the audience to know about these characters.  Because the film as it was just wasn’t quite there.  And I don’t like movies that require outside sources in order to make sense.

The interpretation is there, available.  You can believe that all the various little exchanged glances, the moment when Varun changes Banita’s tire and she says “thank you”, the tiny half moments that are what happens when you work in a team with someone, are hiding a bond that hasn’t quite blossomed yet.  That Banita feels something for this lazy complaining boy, and he feels something for the “good girl” in the class.  But you could also believe that they were no more than co-workers.

If they had a bond already, then Varun’s need to take care of her after the accident is the slow blossoming of that half-there feeling.  His devotion, his placing his photo by her bed, his asking her to look left if she knows him, it is all because she is unable to express the thing they both felt, so he has to be there and express it for her.  Her last words before the accident, “where is Dan?” and her last word before death, “Dan”, both express her most deeply felt love.  It is a beautiful story of a love that can exist while receiving almost nothing in return, patiently there until she fully awakes, sure that she will come back to him.  And the ending, his promise to care for the tree that she was named for, the careful way he holds it in the truck, implies that he will keep that fire of love burning.

But the problem is, we so clearly saw that Varun was lost, was unable to feel a purpose or a connection with any task.  And was not immediately concerned for Banita, that is, no more than anyone else would have been.  It was only after he learned she had asked after him, and began to make it about himself, to spin a theory that if he had been there perhaps she wouldn’t have fallen, that he started to be more involved.  And we can see how he blossoms in the hospital setting, enjoying watching everything, paying attention to every small moment and small triumph, feeling a sense of accomplishment.  And feeling a sense of being needed and respected.

There is an alternative interpretation of this film as a dark study of how self-interest can appear like dis-interest.  Varun is a lost man who wants to feel powerful and respected.  He grasps on to the idea of a relationship and a situation he can control utterly, a woman who is just there for him, needing him without making demands on him.  And her family, who are lost and slowly turn to him simply because he is there.  He forces himself into a situation where he has no place and, through his constant presence and the photo of himself he sneaks onto her bed, he worms his way into Banita’s unconscious consciousness.  He is gone for 6 months, she has one attack and he immediately assumes it is because he was gone.  She dies, and he grasps on to the one thing he can continue to hold onto, a Jasmine tree, as unresponsive as she was but all the more satisfying to him because of it.

Or, here’s a third interpretation.  Varun and Banita fall in love post accident.  He never noticed her, but he is noticing her now.  He feels a bond with her, he talks to her, he learns how to read her tiny movements.  She gets to know him because he is always around.  And finally, as she comes more and more back to herself, she misses him.  When he returns, she struggles to say his name, to admit a love she has come to feel over the past several months.

All of these are interesting films and interesting stories.  The problem is, none of them exactly fit what we see onscreen.  If Varun and Banita had an unspoken love before the accident, then why was it only after he learned she asked about him that he became such a regular hospital visitor?  If Banita had feelings for him before, why did she seem so realistically irritated with his lazy behavior at work?  A very slight change to how the film is shown, editing like was used in the music video, would make it clear that their surface disinterest in each other hide something more.  But instead it is just a very realistic vision of two co-workers who don’t like or hate each other, just sort of get along.  Most importantly, what was the point of establishing Varun as someone who never was willing to take responsibility or work at anything and the clear way he came to enjoy feeling needed and in charge at the hospital, little things like telling people when to raise their feet so the cleaner can mop?  If it is truly unrequited love, why establish that particular quirk?

If it is an entirely dark interpretation, Varun inserting himself where he doesn’t belong just because he wants to feel needed, then why would Banita say his name at the end?  There are other moments that are open to interpretation as part of Varun’s obsession with her creating a response when there is none, but that moment has no other possible meaning.  It stands out from the rest of the film, which could be interpreted as a relationship and a love story that is all in Varun’s head just because he needs something like that in his life, but this one moment is confirming that Banita feels something for him.

And if we have the love story that starts after the accident version, that fits the best perhaps.  Two people who knew each other but didn’t notice each other at first, and his faithful presence and close attention does in fact lead to a strange sort of relationship between them.  But again, there are still the things that don’t quite fit.  Varun outside of the hospital is just as weak and needy as before, asking for leave from his job, getting his friends to cover for him, borrowing money from them, and so on.  It’s a love story that changes him, but only within the hospital setting.  And the director’s choice to leave certain things open to interpretation, Banita’s initial lack of response followed by responding to Varun’s questions only when they are alone, it could be (as he sees it) that she is keeping their relationship secret.  Or it could be that he has hallucinated the whole thing.  In the same way, we only learn about a downturn and unhappiness in therapy months and months after Varun has left.  Varun clearly sees it as because he is gone, but we the audience have been given enough information to determine that it could also be simple natural progression of her recovery.

That is what frustrates me about this film, it’s not that the filmmakers put in hints tending towards all 3 interpretations, it’s that they put in hints that reject each of these 3 interpretations in turn.  So, we are left with nothing that makes sense, nothing that quite fits.

Which isn’t to take away from what the film does manage to accomplish.  First and foremost, a realistic view of long term recovery.  Which is a remarkable filmic accomplishment, handling the sweep of the days as they fade into each other, making the audience as familiar with the routine as the characters, and also a remarkable moral accomplishment.  Media has power, and the constant repetition in films of miracle cures and easy recoveries helps to make people believe that is what healthcare and illness is.  Strips funding away from long term care options, makes friends unable to fully understand what a family is going through, unsympathetic with the idea that someone is “still” in the hospital.  This film can help change the understanding, to show that it is not about “and now she is awake!” but rather about slowly relearning skills, hospital bills that never end, a person who is never going to be quite the same person they used to be, day after dreary day of sitting in waiting rooms and hospital rooms.  It’s not all big moments of drama, it’s small moments of patience and managing regular life along with hospital life.  And it can mean losing your job, losing your house, devoting all your energy to just one thing for the rest of your life.  And most of all, there are no guarantees.  No one is ever really “healthy”.  You can use a ventilator, you can work on physical therapy, you can get off the ventilator, but your body is still weaker, a seizure or a stroke could happen at any time.  Recovery isn’t a straight line with a guaranteed ending.  To show that, that is something worth celebrating and a film challenge worth appreciating.

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2 thoughts on “Happy Varun Dhawan Day! October, Varun’s Art Film

  1. Finally saw this and I have to say that I really loved it. Beforehand I kept on hearing about how quiet and “boring” it was and I don’t know if it’s because I was sitting at home all comfortable or what but I found the stillness of the film very comforting and thought the pacing was quite good. And I absolutely loved how Dan and Shiuli weren’t particularly close beforehand but one throwaway inconsequential comment about her asking about ended up making such a strong impact. Seeing Dan start off as a bit of a jerk but then grow to care for Shiuli, her family, and maybe even the hospital staff was really beautiful and I actually thought that Varun got better as the film went on. I really liked Piku when it came out but honestly I think this just surpassed that for me.

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    • So glad you liked it! I don’t think I have watched it since I saw it in theaters, and I’m curious if I might like it better. Like you said, it depends so much on the situation in which you watch the film.

      Liked by 1 person

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