Starring Vinay Pathak,Amruta Subhash, Tannishtha Chatterjee
Written & Directed by Ruchika Oberoi
Urban Desolation is not an easy subject to put on screen, especially when you are looking at fusing fluency with blitheness, as debutant director Ruchika Oberoi bravely does in this heartwarming homage to the spirit of cheerless solitude in the urban jungle. The subject is far easier to pin down in a non-urban setting, as was the case with Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar where Shabana Azmi as Jamini portrayed emotional and spiritual desolation with heartbreaking veracity.
Tannishtha Chatterjee is no less heartbreaking in the third story entitled ‘Contact’ in Ruchika Oberoi’s 3-tier tribute to urban desolation. Tannishtha’s Aarti (pitch-perfect after that oddly displaced and shrill performance last week in UnIndian) is Everywoman, the kind of nondescript faceless suburban non-entity whom you wouldn’t give a second glance in a crowd. Everyday Aarti takes the same route to work, sometimes by train, more often with her boorish boyfriend Jignesh (Chandan Roy Sanyal, brilliantly sensitive portrayal of insensitivity), and then…that tough walk to her residential compound (echoing Radhika Apte’s plodding walk home after work in Anurag Kashyap’s short film The Day After Everyday) with hecklers and eve-teasers flashing light on her bosom calling out cheesy names like ‘Man-chester’.
No, this is not a life you would wish for your worst enemy’s daughter. Aarti lives that wretched life every day. It’s a heartbreaking grind, unbroken by any sign of humour or hope …until a letter arrives. Tannistha’s face lights up briefly, like a cloud that has suddenly moved away from the sun.
In each of the three stories Ruchika reveals herself a raconteur of restrained drama and unspoken emotions. In each story there is a glimmer of hope for the protagonist. In the first – and the weakest – story, ‘Fun Committee’, the uncommonly common Vinay Pathak plays an officegoer trapped in a terrifying inert routine. When his bosses insist on giving him a day of ‘fun’ in the mall, there is occasion to escape the tyranny and terror of hopelessness. However this story’s potential to amplify the theme of ominousness is squandered in amateurish visuals and puerile props, perhaps more a budgetary than a creative constraint.
By far the finest of the three stories is ‘Ghost In The Machine’ about a low-income middle class family confronted by a crisis when the father of the house goes into a coma. This segment is so reflective and pertinent and so fabulously shot and acted, you wish it was a full-length film. That brilliant actress from Marathi cinema Amruta Subhash plays Sarita with such rare and precious empathy, we can peer right inside the character’s soul. And what we see are some uncomfortable home truths on the tyranny of the male as the householder squeezing all joy out of the home environment.
Should his absence be mourned only because it is expected? This is a question I’ve not seen been asked in any popular work of art lately. There is a tremendous bonding between Sarita and her mother-in-law (Uttara Baokar) and the two actresses play their parts with a sincere pleasure and gusto, specially in the way the dare-pair responds to the portrayals of the Ideal Man—Maryada Prushhotam—in their favourite serial which the family watches religiously after a new television set is sneaked into the house in the patriarch’s absence, right under snoopy neighbours’ eyes.
They would rather have the Man of the house live as a fantasy figure of masculine compassion than to have the man of the house return from his coma.
Ruchika Oberoi’s trilogy of stories displays depth and daring whenever required. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in the story ‘Ghost In The Machine’. I especially liked the response of the visitors to the ‘grieving’ family…the slurping and then the tut-tutting over cups of tea, the nibbling over the plates of biscuits. In the scene where Uttara Baokar is visited by a neighbour (played with delectable humour by Jyoti Subhash, who’s the story’s protagonist Amruta’s real-life mother) who refuses to leave even as the minutes tick by into the ‘grieving’ mother’s favourite serial, the savagery of the satire is killingly delectable.
Island City is a brave and engaging homage to Mumbai and its unflagging spirit of cultural assimilation and emotional isolation. The three stories find unexpected moments of connectivity with one another. And when they do connect, we feel a profound sense of oneness of a universe composed of people who have never seen better days, and never hope to either.