It is not often that a director would allow a critic to watch his or her film before it screens at a movie festival, and that too at a prestigious one. But Ruchika Oberoi from Mumbai allowed this critic to watch her Island City -- which is part of Venice Days, an important sidebar at the ongoing 72nd Venice Film Festival.
Island City is a disturbing work of how a huge metropolis like Mumbai throttles individual freedom, thinking and even desire. And in a way, that there seems little possibility of an escape.Oberoi strings three short stories together -- the link being the island city of Mumbai and autocratic human behaviour. In the first of the shorts, Fun Committee, a middle-aged bachelor is stuck in an endless routine that makes him almost a zombie. He works in an office that believes in organisation, discipline and obedience. Which, of course, means that none of the employees have the right to question authority. Seems like some kind of medieval dictatorship. However, when the company finds its profits dwindling because -- as a study points out -- its workforce is listless and dispirited, a plan is mooted to send each one of them on a day's trip to an amusement park, and our middle-aged bachelor is the first victim of this forced fun.
Another scene from Island City.
The second story, The Ghost in the Machine, centres on a man, who is on life-support in a hospital's intensive care unit. His family of mother, wife and two children are worried and anxious, but at the same time relieved to feel a breath of freedom. For, the man had been almost tyrannical. And while he is in hospital, the family indulges in the luxury of giving itself a television set -- an entertainment banned by the man.
The final short, Contact, is about another tyrannical man, whose fiancee is struggling under the daily grind of earning a living and facing his whimsical qualms as well as lovelessness. She finds joy and sunshine one morning when a letter arrives for her. It is a love letter from a man who does not identify himself, but waxes eloquent about his feelings for her. But will this last?
In a long email chat from Mumbai, Oberoi says: "Mumbai starts affecting you from the moment you set foot here and I did so many years ago as a single, young, impressionable woman. Many moons and bitter-sweet experiences later, certain observations and interactions with different quarters stayed with me, and I was keen to put them together to see if I could create an impression of these times of transition.
"I chose three that offered me the opportunity for some lightness as well as drama. There was the brush with certain slightly humourless upper caste people, known for their correctness, frugality and Brahminical purity, and I thought about doing something that disturbed their stoic sense of morality in a quirky sort of way."
To a question as to what specifically inspired her to make this film, she avers, "I feel quite drawn to a certain twisted, dark kind of comedy and this movie allowed me to explore working this genre. The fun of doing three-thoroughly different stories, each treated in a completely different manner also drew me to making this film."
Oberoi contends that her stories contain themes of authority and control. Each of the characters is also facing a certain kind of disconnect and then, through it all runs a grain of comedy and absurdity.
Finally, the director adds that two of the stories in her debut work, Island City, are based on her observations over a period of time. The third is a story by her husband. "However, I completely changed the characters and the setting to incorporate some of my own impressions of Mumbai city."
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival.)