Disclaimer: I talked to Ms. Oberoi in 2016 on phone soon after the premiere of her film Island City at the 2015 Mumbai Film Festival. This was originally written for The Review Monk but never published due to last minute edits. I am publishing this today without her approval.
Island City is the dazzling debut feature by Ruchika Oberoi who has already collected accolades for writing from various major film festivals around the world.
Her anthology film consists of three stories that sample themes of alienation and vapidity in the city of Bombay (Mumbai). Oberoi’s characters are ordinary people, whose tragic narratives have been carved from her own experiences as an outsider. She came to Bombay after graduation. Island City, starring Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and Amruta Subhash, which won the FEDEORA prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 2015, is about people trying to find hope and meaning in a life without substance. Excerpts from the interview with director Ruchika Oberoi:
Island City is about three stories – three short stories that talk, in some way or the other, about the chilling solitude of living a fast-paced life in Mumbai. What was the inspiration behind these stories?
Being a Bombay-ite and living here for so many years definitely did help. But most importantly, not being born in Bombay, and experiencing the city as an outsider really was the starting point for these stories. I have lived in so many places in India including Bihar and Darjeeling, and then I came to Bombay only after my college. At that time, a lot of things affected me, and many years later, when I began to write the script for Island City, the vivid experiences of Bombay came back to me. I wanted to write about the arrival and adherence of Western culture in the city’s work ethics – the corporate culture – which is now an integral part of the system.
Overall, my aim was to capture the tragedy of the working class – the middle class – especially where women find themselves circumscribed within the household with no scope of chasing their dreams and aspirations. I was working on these stories separately, and in the case of the third short, “Contact”, it was based on a story written by my husband. But, while the original idea was for a TV serial, I worked upon it and created a story within the working class milieu. The characters, played by Tannishtha Chatterjee and Chandan Roy Sanyal, are both working people and are trying to figure out life through romance and matrimony, respectively. Later, at some point of time, I decided to bring these stories together and furnish it as an anthology. However, these stories are not about any one thing, but about many things at once. In terms of plot, they have more to do with the city of Bombay and alienation.
The first story, “Fun Committee”, starring Vinay Pathak was inspired by an incident involving your spouse. Can you tell us more about that?
My husband was working with a bank and was not really happy with the job. He was contemplating moving on, and finally when he did, the bank asked him to join back. Although, even after joining he was not very happy with the projects. One day, after coming home from work, he was emptying his pockets when some bright-coloured coupons fell out. So, when I asked him about them, he told me that those coupons were part of his bank’s ‘fun committee’ department which distributes such freebies and vouchers to employees to keep their spirit up. I found this idea very interesting and decided to carve it into a story.
That’s how “Fun Committee” was born, which is indicative of the present corporate culture, where you have jobs that suck out all the fun from your life. Everything that you do is decided by the committee who also has the final say in your happiness quotient. A sense of black comic story is what it is.
(Note – I wrote about this company culture on my LinkedIn.)
So, do you have a favorite? From your three stories?
No. No favorites, because all three talk about diverse things that are primarily only related by the city in which they are based in. They have different tones, but similar culminations. Also, after watching the film, a lot of people came to me during festival screenings and told me that they could connect with the first story or the third one. Even in Venice, lots of people were vocal about their connections with the second story, “Ghost in the Machine”. So, it is evident that obsession with the idiot box is not local, but universal. While some could connect with the first one, some found the second one more relatable, with others finding the third short more interesting. So, basically, since the stories talk about ordinary people,
they were perceived well.
The underlying theme of the stories is slightly offbeat. For example, in “Fun Committee” we have Vinay Pathak’s character going on an impromptu fun ride organized by his employer. How did you market this to your artists and producers?
Vinay was one of the first to read the script and he instantly liked it. Similarly, the producers actually went for the quirkiness of the stories – the offbeat nature of the stories that you mention – that’s what worked for me. I didn’t have to market it in anyway. The stories are black and slightly oblique, which is the USP of the film. That was the thing that everybody liked and connected with the film as a whole.
The Hollywood Reporter compares “Fun Committee” with the Orwellian concept of Big Brother. What do you think? Is the semblance real?
Sure. George Orwell’s 1984 was there in my mind when I was crafting the story, although it is not overtly thick as the novel. When you have read these books about dystopia and the idea of Big Brother, they are always present in your subconscious. That is why you connect with these stories in the first place. That is why when my husband described the coupons he had got from his office, I could connect the dots and create what is “Fun Committee”. So, yes, definitely there are Orwellian elements in the story – as in the voice that Vinay’s character follows, in the short. The voice is totally disconnected from the activities that are happening. For a moment, we wonder if it’s really of a real person, is it really a fun committee, or is it a machine, or a program which has no idea what’s going on. What if this program goes wrong and it won’t be able to deal with it or fix it? Something of this nature is currently happening around us, wouldn’t you say?
What genre would you collectively place this anthology in? Black comedy? Tragedy? Or is it genre- neutral?
They have diverse tones. So, collectively, I would put them in the tragic-comedy genre with traces of black humor. And the final story with Tannishtha – it does have bit of a romance in it. But, for me, it is not very important to set the stories in a single tone. All of them are interesting, per se, and together they have a voice that communicates the city’s core as it currently stands.
Could Island City be based on another city in the world and still be similar?
Absolutely! I can’t say any particular city, but like I said, in Venice, the audience could relate with the second story where people sometimes forget their own life owing to their habit of TV-watching. Talking about the first story, the entire concept is about a Western culture, so it connects with a universal audience. Of course, the working class conditions will be different, but in general, the essence remains the same. Island City has played in different countries like Colombia and in the States, and the fact is that people have managed to connect with the stories.
How was it to win the FEDEORA prize at Venice?
Totally unexpected. To even get selected was a big thing for us. I personally thought it was difficult to get selected mostly because it’s not that serious a film. Although it does deal with serious issues, it is narrated in a dark humorous way. But, the selectors were unanimous in their praise for the film and they promoted it very well from their side. It was screened at a huge hall with 500 occupants, and it was jam-packed. At the end, we even received a standing ovation. Overall, it was a wonderful experience for the whole crew, and afterwards when we won the prize, we were sort of ecstatic. At the end of the day, festival selections and awards are what build credibility for you as a filmmaker and your independent films. Such treats provide hope to us that, yes, films like this are worth people’s time.
What do you think about independent films in India? How are they perceived? Will the trend change?
As in, have people started accepting independent films which convey strong messages? I know that more and more are being made here in India, but the artists are not making much money. I think, with the digital media coming in, it has been easier than ever to get a film out there; at least the publicity part. Great films are definitely happening in India and are competing at major film festivals around the world. However, I am not sure whether the public is watching it or not. There are certain people – the youth – who are interested in watching a different kind of cinema, but I don’t know why it snaps there. The interest and content are not connecting with each other.
I also don’t know if filmmakers even recover the costs. But, we have to keep doing what we do and hope that somewhere down the line, things will change for us. The audience also does complain about a lack of quality films, but at a time, when there are films which are also easily available to watch, why don’t they give it a try? I can sense that producers are trying to bring content and relevant audiences together through digital and social media. And that’s a good thing for this part of the industry.
Last year when we talked, you told me you were trying to find a distributor for the film in India. Can you share the experience? What challenges did you face?
I was not involved much in the distribution side of things. Sure, we had NFDC with us which gave us all the support we needed. As you know, NFDC is of great help to independent cinema filmmakers, and they were sure that they were going to give it a wide release. We were happy with the press the film was getting and we wanted to get good distributors. Moreover, it was our decision to let the film travel for a year and let it make a name for itself before getting a theatrical release. So, that’s why it premiered last year (2015) in September at Venice and now 12 months later, it is releasing nationwide on September 2nd (2016). We are lucky to have NFDC and Drishyam Films supporting us.
What was the budget of Island City like? Do you plan to do big-budget films?
The budget was pretty low, but the film was not based on a budget. The actors definitely helped by cutting down their fees; otherwise, it would not have been possible to complete the film. Plus, I cannot outline a script on a budget. It has to interest me and help in my own understanding of the medium and of myself – only then will I write it. For me, filmmaking is not really about the budget.
Do you have anything in the pipeline?
Nothing right now. I do have an idea in mind, but I think I am going to take a brief break for a couple of months, get some rest, and then get back to writing.
One last for the audience: why should people go and watch the film starting this weekend?
I think people should go and watch it just to be entertained and to dive into a series of poignant stories. No other reason at all.
Island City, directed by Ruchika Oberoi and produced by NFDC in association with Drishyam Films released September 2, 2016 across India and is available to watch on Hotstar.