The title sets the tone. Ruchika Oberoi’s Island City is about Mumbai and its many denizens living in the metaphorical little isles of loneliness, craving for a vital, life-affirming companionship and connect with someone, or something. The stories in the triptych might seem connected by too thin a thread, but reinforce the theme. They are all about loneliness at the heart of modern, urban living, one that doesn’t offer succour and solitude but brings along with it many conflicts and a deep sense of alienation.
At another level, all three stories are about authoritarianism, the individual rebellions against it and the happy and not-so-happy consequences of these unheralded, unknown mini mutinies. While this core idea is strong, the representation of it and the cinematic tonality is inconsistent, varying from tale to tale.
The second story, The Ghost In The Machine, about a family’s sweet revolt against the domineering, penny-pinching head of family (who is on life support in hospital) by bringing home a television set (that had been banned by him) is the most confidently realised segment of the lot. It’s a perfect short in its own right, about the contradictions in relationships and families — how they can suffocate, oppress yet offer outlets and release. How a loss can come with pain as well as relief. The question it keeps playing up is: what will happen to the idiot box when the father of two returns from hospital? The segment is replete with sarcasm and dark humour that coaxes you to think even as you chuckle along. The subtly expressive Amruta Subhash as the wife, Sarita, and the quirky friendly mother, Uttara Baokar, are a delight together. The juxtaposition of the Hindi TV serial world against the family’s own destiny might seem predictable and meditated, but underscores the collision of reality and fantasy with flair and flamboyance, with a lightness of touch but profundity of thought.
It’s the injured protagonist in this story who is the crucial link with the first segment called Fun Committee. Here, it is all about the tyranny of another kind — that of the office culture. Suyash Chaturvedi (a poker-faced Vinay Pathak, in tune with the deadpan, absurd tone of the section) leads an unthinking routine life planned precisely, right down to the 6 a.m. alarm, the glass of water and five almonds soaked overnight. All of which is strategically placed by his bedside. He works in Systemic Statistics, a company full of human robots given orders by disembodied voices over the office announcement system. He doesn’t have a life beyond work. The office is run on three Os: Orderliness, Organisation and Obedience. But the management is as dictatorial about “fun frolic and festivity”. Suyash wins the office ‘Fun Committee Award’, which instructs him on a whole day of fun. Completing these fun modules is mandated from up above, not an individual choice. The story is all about how office cubicles turn us into automated beings, prisoners to routines, doing unthinking work day after day. The humour here has a futuristic, farcical, outlandish touch. The glass facades, box-like buildings, people lining up for entry through the revolving doors all remind one of the visuals from the Pink Floyd music video for Another Brick in the Wall, with the lyrics, “We don’t need no thought control” striking resonance.
The third story, Contact, is about the mechanical, joyless, shabby life of young Aarti, who finds some moments of respite when she receives an empathetic, anonymous letter. This segment is the one that doesn’t seem to come together well, despite a nuanced performance by Tannishtha Chatterjee and an assured turn by Chandan Roy Sanyal as her rude, patriarchal fiancée, Jignesh. Will the anonymous billet doux help her overcome the disconnect she is stuck in with her family, her fiancée and herself? Will she be able to escape and fly? What’s crucial here, again, is the theme of freedom, though not as compellingly drawn out.