Shoojit Sircar's reel women " and their real avatars

Swetha Ramakrishnan

"We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it." €" Roger Ebert

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The one thing that stuck with me after watching Varun Dhawan's latest film October was its portrayal of Delhi.

Here's a film that doesn't believe in showing the capital €" like Anna Vetticad puts it in her review €" as stereotypically "Punjabi-obsessed". She further writes that in the film, we see "a Delhi that is far more multicultural than most Bollywood films set here seem to realise. The Malayali nurse (Nimmi Raphael), the Bengali neurologist (Ashish Ghosh), the Tamilian professor explaining why her daughter has a Bangla name €" their presence makes October far more representative of the real Delhi."

The Tamilian professor character in October has a real-life counterpart, currently living in a small colony in South Delhi. Gitanjali Rao's character in the film really made me feel nostalgic, because she reminded me of Vasanti*.

The first thing Vasanti would ask you at a dinner party is: 'What is your purpose in life?'. As you scrambled for an answer, she would give your sermon after sermon about what it's like to be an adult, and how you must always chase your dreams. "What is the point of life if you don't dream?" she'd ask. We'd have no rejoinders to her musings.

Originally from a village near Coimbatore, Vasanti has a double degree in Philosophy and teaches in JNU. She's always dressed in a sari with Kolhapuris and her favourite colour is brown. "As you grow older, the pinks will start to glare, and the browns will seem natural" €" Vasanti would say. She doesn't like living in Delhi too much but considers "home" to be a superficial concept anyway. She's meek and forthright in equal parts, wears her streaks of grey hair proudly, and has two sons (both of whom want a career in academics). Her best friend is a certain Mrs George, a head-nurse in a nearby hospital. They talk on the phone every day, but meet only during Onam and Vishu.

Just like Vasanti, Shuili's mom (played by the charming Gitanjali Rao) shone with her deep brown sari blouses, and even deeper eyes. Her expressions and emotions revealed far more about her than anything else she said. She found it extremely hard to discuss her problems; like Vasanti, Shiuli's mom would rather be a problem-solver.

Just like Shiuli's mom in October, Vasanti would rather solve problems than discuss her own

Over time, I lost touch with Vasanti. For one, she was my dad's friend not my mom's. My mom is the social butterfly of our family, and tends to keep in touch with all her friends. My dad is a bit flaky on that front (and I've taken after him). Vasanti and my father grew up in Karol Bagh (once a haven for South Indian migrants €" more specifically Tamilian Brahmins).

Also, I don't live in Delhi anymore, and when I do visit, catching up with my father's once-friend is not a priority. All my memories of Vasanti are from my childhood: sitting on her wooden dining table (always stocked with small bananas) and listening to the two of them talk in Tamil. He would often stop by to meet her on his way back from Malai Mandir in Munirka.

Vasanti wouldn't ever ask my dad for chai; any Tamilian worth their salt would know you must always offer guests filter coffee. What's a pale cup of chai in comparison to the brain-kicker than filter coffee could be?

I never understood what they spoke about, my Dad and Vasanti, and she disappeared from our memory over the years. However, after my dad watched October last weekend, he sent me a text: "Does Varun Dhawan's mom remind you of someone?"

I caught on to his thought, and replied, "You mean Shuili's mom right?"

"The Tamilian lady from IIT..."

"Vasanti," I replied in a word, to gauge how far behind his memory could go.

"Correct :)" he replied. He never uses emojis.

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Don't judge a book by its cover €" I never really understood this concept until I met Gargi*, my neighbour from East Delhi (I spent five years in IP Extension, right at the border of Ghaziabad). Gargi lived in a large Marwari family in my building, on the seventh floor, and we were not friends at first. In fact, the only interaction I had with her was when she had to leave her house keys with us as she left for tuition in the afternoon.

If there was ever a way to interact with another person €" with an icy demeanour and without eye contact €" Gargi was the champion of it. But the closer I got to Gargi in the summer of 2003, the more layers I uncovered.

Gargi was no Hindi film heroine, but she has way too many similarities with Deepika Padukone in Piku: overburdened by familial obligations to a point of being outright b*tchy; and impatient yet dreamy, because all her notions of the opposite sex came from Karan Johar films (which were all of two till 2003 €" Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham and, gasp, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai). Gargi had no tact, and it was her sassiest quality. When she fought with her mother (who was her closest friend but also her biggest critic), you could hear it all the way to the ground floor (where I lived). She never told me much about her family, apart from the fact that she never really got along with most of them.

Gargi was no Hindi film heroine, but she has way too many similarities with Deepika Padukone in Piku

She had no friends and that was peculiar because, boy, was she chatty. Not too many people had the patience (and curiosity) to be friends with someone as brash as her. She'd claim to never need friends €" "I live in a family of 18. I don't need friends. I have cousins." When I'd roll my eyes in retaliation, she'd mock-slap me. Gargi and I became friends over games of badminton on humid summer evenings. She would beat me every single day, and then treat me to an orange lolly from Vadilal; they would cost Rs 5 but she'd remind of how many lollies she bought me all through our three-year friendship.

One day Gargi's younger cousin rang my doorbell. It was an early October morning (incidentally). "Didi hum jaa rahe hai". My puzzled expression must have given away more than I imagined because he restlessly followed that up with, "maasi!" €" and scampered away. I later found out Gargi's mom passed away. The family moved to Udaipur the next day, and I never saw Gargi again. Years later, I sent her a friend request on Facebook but she's yet to accept. I don't feel too bad about it.

Here's where those emotions finally came out: when I watched Piku for the first time, I wept at the end. Not because I'm a fan of Amitabh Bachchan, but because Deepika Padukone's Piku reminded me so sorely of Gargi.

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There's a scene in Shoojit Sircar's Vicky Donor where Vicky's mom and grand-mom meet his lover Ashima's father and aunt, to discuss their impending wedding. Ashima has had a divorce and her aunt has never been married.

Vicky's mom Dolly €" not one to mince her words €" asks Ashima's father with genuine concern, "Aapke upar kaafi pressure hoga na? (there must be a lot of pressure on you)". When he quizzes her about her concern, she says, "Aapki beti divorcee hai aur behen bachelor (your daughter's a divorcee and your sister a bachelor)?"

When Ashima tries to bridge the palpable culture shock between the two families, Dolly stops her and says, "Now you're a part of our family. Let these Bongs talk."

The figurative light bulb went on over my head: Where had I heard this before, I wondered? I was laughing too hard to dig deeper, and let it pass. Days later (this was in 2011), I happened to visit Lajpat Nagar to shop for a particular kind of fabric you could only get in the by-lanes of Central Market. There, I ran into Mrs Kalra*, a boisterous family friend who lived in the area and ran a beauty parlour near my house.

"Namaste aunty!" I said. She would have none of these "hellos" people said to the elderly these days. "Kyon namaste kehna bhool gayi kya? (have you forgotten how to say Namaste)" €" she would say to every "hello" that came her way.

Dolly Ahluwalia from Vicky Donor, and Lajpat Nagar's Kalra Aunty were the same person

"Kaise ho beta? Achchi lag rahi ho," she'd say this grudgingly, to be kind. But the elevator eyes would follow my body, scrutinising each aspect like a true-blue parlour aunty. "Boyfriend mila ki nahi?"

I smiled. She was a warm, friendly lady but I had no obligation to discuss my love life with her.

"Shopping kar rahi hoon. Aap kaise ho?"

"Bas baba ki khair se sab chal raha hai. Dekh beta, apni mummy ko pareshaan mat kar. Jaldi se ladka dhoond le. Nahi toh poori zindagi bachelor hi rahegi."

And that's when I figured it out. Vicky's mom Dolly and Kalra Aunty were the same person.

By day, Kalra Aunty ran a small-yet-warm household on a diet of rajma chawal and aaloo gobi (unless tomato prices sky rocketed, in which case her family would have to make do with kadi chawal without pakodas). She lived with her good-for-nothing son (her words, not mine), and almost-too-old-to-care mother-in-law. Her husband passed away in the 1984 riots. By evening, she ran a beauty parlour in Alaknanda, south Delhi (which is where I met her for the first time. The first thing she ever said to me was to drink two litres of water every day, "nahi toh chehre pe age dikh jayega").

Sharing Bollywood gossip with her 5 o'clock manicure appointment is her favourite pastime. Kareena was her favourite €" obviously.

I called Kalra Aunty a couple of days after meeting her in Lajpat Nagar: "Aapko pata hai aapke upar movie bani hai (Do you know there's a movie made on you)?"

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So many of Shoojit Sircar's characters €" from three of his most loved films, Vicky Donor, Piku and now October €" have real life counterparts. This is one of Sircar's most commendable qualities as a filmmaker: his ability to be so observant of his surroundings. Various reports surfaced online about how Sircar asked Varun Dhawan not to "act" in October. In fact, Dhawan himself said his experience working on the film was like nasha. Sircar would often take the final shot while pretending to Varun that it's a practise take.

Yet, on multiple viewings of his films, you realise that each character has been taken care of with such deliberation. That's why you remember Pishi (Swaroopa Ghosh) from Vicky Donor as starkly as Dr Chadha (the brilliant Annu Kapoor). That's why it's so difficult to decide who you side with the most between Amitabh, Deepika and Irrfan's characters in Piku. Shoojit Sircar's onscreen universe isn't very different from ours. His poignant stories are born from intricate realities. You can't get his films and his characters out of your mind.

And that's why I had quite the meta dream last night. You see, I've been swimming in my thoughts of these overlapping characters for a while now.

In it, Kalra Aunty, Gargi and Vasanti got in touch with me after reading this €" my unconventional love letter to Shoojit Sircar (clearly my brain was telling me to inform my subjects that I written about them). Kalra Aunty was happy with being recognised; she called Vicky Donor her favourite film and offered me a free mani-pedi session. Gargi accepted my friend request and sent me a message about how she'd like to catch up when she's in Mumbai next. She didn't care too much for my writing, but made me promise to give her the latest dope on Bollywood.

Vasanti said the least, but her (fictitious) words affected me the most in the morning:

"Break the fourth wall often."

*(Names changed to protect identity.)

€" Art by Satwick Gade

Also See: October is a great example of Shoojit Sircar's versatility — the trappings of Bollywood are yet to corrupt him

October writer Juhi Chaturvedi on Varun Dhawan's character Dan, and working with Shoojit Sircar

October prep required Varun Dhawan to 'wake up and look at plants' and 'talk softly'

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