October is a difficult film to watch, but not for the reasons one might expect. The drama of a young woman’s life forever changed by injury is merely the backdrop for a too familiar story of an undeserving male character’s redemption.
Varun Dhawan stars as Dan, a hotel management trainee with no likeable qualities. He’s a snob who’d rather delegate work than do it himself, especially tasks he deems beneath him, like cleaning rooms and doing laundry. He’s a know-it-all who loves telling more experienced people how to do their jobs. He’s lazy, yet competitive enough to resent fellow trainees who are smarter and more capable than he is.
Among the trainees, the chief recipient of Dan’s bad attitude is Shiuli (Banita Sandhu). Whether his being a jerk to her indicates some kind of stunted elementary school-type crush or if it’s just his standard jerkiness is unclear. Shortly into the film, Shiuli slips from a third floor balcony at a New Year’s Eve party, rendering her comatose and permanently paralyzed.
Dan wasn’t at the party, so he only learns days after the accident that Shiuli’s last words before she fell were, “Where is Dan?” This sparks an obsession, leading Dan to spend all of his time at the hospital in the hopes that Shiuli will wake and tell him why she asked about him.
That sounds like the setup for horror movie, yet we know it can’t be, because Dan fits the mold of a common type of Bollywood hero: the boorish man-child who must finally become an adult. The arc for this character type is so familiar — in the course of falling in love with a good woman, he learns to care for someone other than himself — that director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi treat the hero’s emotional growth as the inevitable consequence of his devotion.
But Dan doesn’t change in October. He ends the movie as much of an obnoxious know-it-all as he is at the start, correcting Shiulu’s mother Vidya (Gitanjali Rao) on how to properly care for her daughter and wanting praise for his contributions (which include hovering over a workman building a ramp for a wheelchair).
Dan’s dedication to Shiuli’s recovery stems from his wanting an answer from her. He uses his obsession as a measure of moral superiority, criticizing her friends for not spending every free moment at the hospital. He can’t understand that they have other obligations — to the rest of their friends and families, and even to themselves — that they must tend to as well.
That’s because Dan’s misanthropy and willingness to ignore his own family leave him with no other relationships beside the one he invents with Shiuli, and he’s willing to sacrifice everything to maintain it. He skips work, stops paying rent to his roommate, and borrows money from everyone with no way to pay it back. He’s mean to hospital staff and other visitors.
But because Dan is the protagonist, his single-mindedness is depicted as positive. The little he does for Shiuli mitigates the rest of his awful behavior. On the rare occasions that he is punished, he fails upward. The movie is determined to maintain Dan’s hero status, in spite of his actions.
All of this is driven by a one-sided devotion. From all indications, Shiuli wasn’t interested in Dan romantically before her accident, and they were barely more than acquaintances. Does she like him hanging around her at all times? If not, she’s physically unable to tell him to leave. Would she want him involved in the minutiae of her healthcare, monitoring things as intimate as the amount of urine in her catheter bag?
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Sircar said that he and Chaturvedi drew on their own experiences caring for seriously ill parents when creating October. Yet the amount of influence Dan has over Shiuli’s care feels unrealistic. Certainly Vidya knows her daughter better than Dan, thus making her a better judge of Shiuli’s wishes — especially since Dan is neither the one being subjected to extraordinary medical interventions nor the one footing the bill for them. Vidya’s ready assent to Dan’s will reinforces how little agency female characters have in October.
Dhawan is a versatile actor, and it’s nice to see him in a film that requires more subtlety than a loud comedy like Judwaa 2 or Dilwale. Yet, whenever he plays a character who is supposed to undergo substantial emotional growth — be it October, Badlapur, or even Badrinath Ki Dulhania — a woman is always subjected to physical harm in order for him to do so. That’s not Dhawan’s fault, but it does highlight a need for screenwriters and filmmakers to move beyond fridging women as an expedient pathway to male character growth.