Direction: Ruchika Oberoi
Actors: Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Amruta Subhash
Rating: 4 / 5
The camera pans over one glass building. Then another. An alarm goes off. A middle-aged man (Vinay Pathak) wakes up, deadpans through morning stretches, deadpans through his day inside one of those glass buildings. It’s all white-shirted clones, drumming keyboards, phones ringing. He’ll do the same thing tomorrow. So will the clones.
‘That’s not me’, you say. Sure, you may not live alone at 40, or come home to a microwave dinner. But the routine of 9-to-5, all the pie charts? Still not you?
This is one of three stories in debut director Ruchika Oberoi’s Island City. It’s a dark, in-parts-exaggerated look at life in Mumbai, life in any Indian metropolis.
Oberoi picks the triptych, loosely interwoven — a common beginner’s approach. Easier, perhaps, to handle than a single 90-minute narrative. Her basic premise, a critical look at the urban human condition, is not entirely novel (Chaplin: Modern Times; Tagore, and then Q: Tasher Desh; Beckett: Waiting for Godot).
Why Island City still commands your attention is because of Oberoi’s craft in adapting it to the modern metropolis, and holding it up as a mirror to its residents.
The cog-in-the-wheel employee’s story opens the film. It’s the most absurd. When he wins a mandatory fun day at the mall, he doesn’t know how to react. He tries to rebel, but lacks agency. In the end, he follows instructions (as he always has), with disastrous results.
Oberoi’s most subtle metaphor, and cleverest bit of writing, is in the second story: you see two kids rote-learning. It’s the slightest jibe at our bookish education, which teaches us to follow, not question. A husband has gone into a coma, and a wife and mother of two (Amruta Subhash) rediscovers happiness and self-reliance. Despite its bleak context, this is the most hopeful and empowering of the three stories.
The third sees a blue-collar worker (Tannishtha Chatterjee) rebel against an arranged match.
Oberoi threads the stories together cleverly, through ironic background narratives. In the first, a disembodied PA system (straight out of sci-fi) is the bringer of bad news. In the second, it’s an unreal morality soap, the sort Indian TV is infested with. In the third, in keeping with the social strata, it’s a relationship guru on the radio.
This is a stellar debut film, as much for the storytelling as the subtle handling and dark humour. It is a bit too bleak at times; the light at the end of the tunnel is artificial and false. But the exaggeration is deliberate. It gets you thinking.
It’s not a blue pill-red pill choice. But you’ll be aware of the Matrix.
Watch: The trailer for Island City