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Varun Dhawan working in my film was bizarre for many: Shoojit Sircar at IFFI 2018


In a conversation with film critic Saibal Chatterjee, Shoojit Sircar discussed his latest film October, from the unlikely casting of Dhawan to digging into the experience of his own mother being in a coma.

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Suparna Thombare

After making films like Vicky Donor (2012), Madras Cafe (2013) and Piku (2015), filmmaker Shoojit Sircar delved this year into the melancholic story of Dan, a young man who discovers himself after a friend lands up in a coma, in October (2018).

The leisurely pace and beautiful moments in the film made Sircar's lastest outing one of his best.

October was screened in the Indian Panorama section at the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) on 23 November.

In a conversation with film critic Saibal Chatterjee, the director freely discussed why a star like Varun Dhawan, known for playing the 'hero' in commercial cinema, was roped in to play October's protagonist Dan. Especially as the director declared at the outset that he "can't make a film for the audience".

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"Varun Dhawan was not even on my radar," Sircar admitted. "We don't even come from the same planet. For him to work in my film was bizarre for a lot of people. Unless I saw something in him and felt this is Dan for me.

"What you see there is also important. I wanted to go with an absolutely new cast because, if you see, the others are a fresh cast. Because if they [commercial artistes] ask me to tell them more about the story I wouldn't have been able to tell them much. The film is about the moment and the experience that we go through."

Narrating the experience of getting Dhawan to underplay his role, Sircar said, "So, for example, he will sit, and I know he would want to do a lot of things. My job was to calm him down and make him not do a lot of things. I would put a shot and tell him to be silent and watch and sit there.

"After a point he would say he had been silent for a long time. 'Aage toh kuch karna padega... kuch acting [I hope there is some acting to be done]'," Sircar said to titters from the audience.

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"He was confused and I asked my cinematographer to keep rolling," the director continued. "What would you do with a coma patient in the room? So he'll come back and say 'kuch toh kiya nahi maine [I did nothing]'. I said, 'Ho gaya [It's done]. Whatever you did is good.'

"He took some time to understand that, but when he understood that... even if he is Varun Dhawan and he does his kind of films, he understood that and he was brave to take that jump," Sircar said.

The filmmaker observed that the urge to 'act' happens with many, and he did have to control it in Dhawan. "It happens, that I need to do some 'acting'. It happens to everyone. Very few like Irrfan [Khan] understand that."

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Though Sircar made it clear during the conversation that casting Dhawan was not a commercial but a creative decision, he was happy with the response. "It was not as big as Piku or Pink (2016), but it was good box office," he said. "It did what we had expected. People said sad, melancholic, slow, I slept... and I said fine, because it is that kind of film."

Going back to what made him cast Dhawan, Sircar said it was the actor's "clumsiness and innocence" that drew him.

"He was chasing me for a year and saying he wanted to work with me," the director said. "I had a flight in the morning. And at around 10am he called me. I said I should meet him because I had been avoiding him for a while. I said come now and I'll meet you for 15 minutes. He had just woken up. I said come the way you are.

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"He was wearing torn jeans, a T-shirt, and his hair was dishevelled. Varun was not in my mind at all, the script of October was. I saw an innocence in his eyes, honestly, which was an important part of Dan, and you see it in the film. He said I want to work with you. He dropped the tea cup. Then he dropped the water. I saw a clumsiness and I caught hold of that clumsiness. And I went from there. Dan doesn't know what future he has."

October is a seamless blend of the medical and the emotional aspects of having to deal with a close one lying on a hospital bed in a comatose state. Sircar said both he and the film's writer, Juhi Chaturvedi, drew upon their personal experiences to write the script.

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"My mother was in coma for three months in Delhi," Sircar recalled. "I was in Mumbai shooting. Suddenly it had happened. What you saw Varun going through, I used to go to my mother every day in the ICU. Bahar [Outside] Diwali was going on.

"Medical ki jo duniya hai [The medical world], it is separated from the outside world. If someone's family member is in hospital, that whole hospital world is totally alien to the outside. Like scientists who are in their own world, and wouldn't even know where Salman Khan is dancing. The hospital world is like that. The three months I spent there, every day, all those experiences came into it [the writing].

"Juhi's mother had also been in a coma. We have dug into those experiences and used them in writing the film," said Sircar. 

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