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Island City (dir. Ruchika Oberoi, 2015)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on September 26, 2016.

With Island City, director Ruchika Oberoi presents a tryptich of stories dealing with oppression and alienation in the modern island city of the title, Mumbai. In the first story, “Fun Committee”, Vinay Pathak is perfect as Suyash Chaturvedi, the corporate drone working at Systematic Statistics. The company’s Fun Committee has decided that the best way to combat declining productivity is to subject its employees to orderly, organized, obedient fun. Chaturvedi is taken to the mall in the company “Fun Van”, given an envelope of coupons, and a set of instructions that he is required to follow to maximize his fun. An accidental swap of coupons with a terrorist undergoing a similar experience has him mindlessly gathering the pieces of a rifle and putting them together, something he seems to find more engaging, at least, than gathering up pink teddy bears and riding the carousel in the mall.

“Fun Committee” is absurd and surreal and deliciously funny and dark at the same time – think of Jacques Tati crossed with Aki Kaurismäki. It’s a sharp send-up of everything wrong in the corporate world, and highly entertaining and thought-provoking.

In the second story, “The Ghost in the Machine”, a man lies on life support after being the victim of an odd office shooting, an event that allows his long-suffering wife (Amruta Subhash) a chance at managing the household on her own without his constant requirement of having her account for everything spent. She regains control of the family finances, goes back to work as a teacher, and her family begins to thrive and be happy, especially as they enjoy the latest serial on television (“Purushottam”, involving the tales of a perfect husband). Their joy at the recovery of their favourite perfect television husband is tempered by the sudden recovery of their overbearing husband and father, who is far from the model one seen in the popular serial. “Ghost in the Machine” uses the device of the television serial to parallel the experience of the real world family to great emotional effect.

In the film’s final story, “Contact”, a serious, quiet, young woman named Aarti (the always excellent Tannishtha Chatterjee), who works at a newspaper printing press, is engaged to Jignesh (Chandan Roy Sanyal), a foul-mouthed lout who appears to care more about his motorcycle than he does for her. “All this romance-shomance is rubbish,” he tells a buddy, happy that his future in-laws have arranged their marriage so he can concentrate on his business. Aarti suddenly begins receiving love letters from an admirer who seems to be the only person who truly understands her, and for the first time, hope blooms in her face. The truth of who her correspondent really is, however, manages to quash what little flame of joy that had been lit in her life.

Oberoi cleverly connects her three stories in ways that allow Island City to stand as a thematic whole. Her characters are dutiful, orderly, obedient; their lives leave little space for fun. And yet, as the film reveals, there are moments of hope, of love, of relief from the oppression of daily life in the Island City, though perhaps not enough to result in a completely fulfilling life.

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