2.5 Stars (out of 4)
Island City was a part of the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
Writer-director Ruchika Oberoi’s debut film Island City explores the pressures of life in modern Mumbai through three connected narratives, with varying degrees of success.
The movie opens with “Fun Committee,” a story about a middle-aged salaryman, Mr. Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak). He files into his cubicle at Systematic Statistics along with the other drones, an interchangeable cog in a giant machine.
To remedy persistent employee dissatisfaction, the company installs a “Fun Committee” to randomly award workers with a day away from the office. For a guy like Chaturvedi, whose job is his life, such a reward feels like a punishment.
According to an anonymous committee member heard only over the phone (voiced by Rajat Kapoor), the day away is scientifically planned to maximize “mandatory” fun. Chaturvedi is dropped off at a shopping mall, under orders to utilize a stack of coupons for free stuff like balloons and lollipops.
The film’s limited budget becomes a problem as the narrative shifts into a surreal examination of consumer culture. Retail employees sing when Chaturvedi redeems his coupons as shoppers mill about nearby. Are the shoppers also a part of the alternative universe inhabited by Chaturvedi and the store workers? Are they even aware of it? A bigger budget would’ve allowed Oberoi to build a more immersive world, avoiding the questions of who’s involved and who’s just a regular person who happened to be shopping on the day of a movie shoot.
Sympathy for Chaturvedi’s plight is undermined when he extends his frustration with his soul-sucking job beyond the callous management to his fellow employees. They’re just as much victims of the system as he is. “Fun Committee” ends on a grim note.
The second story — “The Ghost in the Machine” — is the best of the three. Housewife Sarita (Amruta Subhash) learns that her husband, Mr. Joshi, is in a coma. Sarita, her two young sons, and her mother endure neighbors dropping by to offer condolences in exchange for tea and cookies, but the family knows the truth: Joshi was an overbearing jerk, and their life is more enjoyable without him.
All four family members get hooked on a TV serial about an ideal man. The TV hero (Samir Kochhar) is handsome, affectionate, kind, generous, and polite: all the things Joshi is not. The serial allows the family to envision a better life, while comatose Joshi hovers over their dreams like a not-quite-dead ghost. The story is delightfully clever, especially in the way the TV serial’s narrative evolves to depict the family’s desires.
“Contact” is the last of Island City‘s short stories. Unlike the middle-class protagonists of the other narratives, “Contact” features a poor heroine. Aarti (Tannishtha Chatterjee) endures a hopeless existence, commuting for hours to a manual labor job at a newspaper print shop. Her father has arranged her marriage to a foul-mouthed boor, Jignesh (Chandan Roy Sanyal), who insists that dour Aarti smile without giving her a reason to.
An anonymous love letter professes to see the passionate fire hidden within Aarti’s sad eyes. The mystery awakens not just Aarti’s sense of curiosity but a belief that perhaps she deserves a more fulfilling life than the one she has. Chatterjee’s touching performance lives up her consistently high standards.
Island City is pessimistic about life for the average Mumbaikar. Hope is either a lie, or it comes at an astronomical cost. “The Ghost in the Machine” is the only one of the three tales that is fun to watch.
It’s hard to reconcile how the salaryman’s story fits with the other two. The image of the zombie-like office worker is well established, but Chaturvedi is there by choice. There’s no sense that he quashed some vibrant part of himself to take this job. He has no family to support. He’s there because there’s nothing more to him.
Contrast that with both Sarita and Aarti, whose opportunities are dictated by the men in their lives. Joshi forced Sarita to stop working in a career she loved. Aarti works in a dead-end job, and she’s forced to marry someone she finds repulsive. Not only are Chaturvedi’s self-imposed troubles deemed equivalent with those of the two women, they’re given prominence by being placed first in the story order.
It feels like there’s a piece missing from Island City that might have better connected the three stories. Maybe it was just a matter of weaving the narratives together rather than presenting them separately. As constructed, Island City only hits its stride after a third of the movie is already over.