In a scene mid-way through the movie October, the lead character, Dan, played by Varun Dhawan, is chided by his friends for wasting his time looking after a dying girl he barely knows.
What’s the point, they argue.
“Do you guys only do something if there’s a point?” he asks.
The point, historically, of the love-story plot in Hindi cinema has been about the hero initiating romance, often in regressive ways, with a goal towards establishing a heterosexual upper-caste couple that either lives happily ever after or sometimes dies together when unable to do so. Bollywood movies abound with declarations of love, but the emotional labour and financial stresses that may burden a couple are usually invisible. In October, a film about a hotel-management student who falls in love with a woman in a coma, some of this is made visible. It is the long, laborious act of undertaking care that brings about romantic love, one that remains unrequited but the development of which is an end unto itself. The female lead, named Shiuli, suffers such severe brain damage that there is little possibility of marriage or sex, the end goals of most Bollywood love stories.
October foregrounds a kind of masculinity, glimpsed occasionally in the cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, that has not been prominent in mainstream Hindi cinema. There are only a handful of contemporary films where the male protagonist looks after an ailing romantic partner, such as the elderly husbands of Waiting (2015) and OK Jaanu (2017) or the younger ones in Khwaahish (2003), Woh Lamhe (2006) and U Me Aur Hum (2008). This is always justified by a pre-existing bond. They perform care in ways that have little to do with alleviating the suffering of the afflicted and more to do with affirming their own masculinity—measurable in terms of money that the affluent male character can provide for medical care or the aggression they can direct at the hospital staff. This sort of male romantic lead, so firmly rooted in the sexist and melodramatic genre of Bombay film, is becoming increasingly incongruous.
The character of Dan is the latest in a series of attempts in Hindi cinema to present male protagonists coming to terms with shifts in traditional gender roles. As women characters onscreen have diversified and gotten edgier, male characters have undergone changes too. Sadma (1983)’s Somprakash (Kamal Haasan) is a character worth comparing Dan with. Somprakash rescued Reshma (Sridevi) from a brothel. In October, Shiuli, who is Dan’s colleague, is better than him at the job and on her way to becoming an independent career woman. Hindi films are becoming rife with male leads who must reconcile with a liberal feminist discourse that is more prevalent in the mainstream. This takes two forms: the reversal of gender roles in middle-class lives, where women’s careers are more lucrative or prestigious than those of their male partners—Bewakoofiyaan (2014), Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), Ki and Ka (2016), Tumhari Sulu (2017) or in the portrayal of men who become mouthpieces for feminist rhetoric (often in problematic ways): Piku (2015), Pink (2016), Pad-Man and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017). October is an addition to the former category that forces Bollywood heroes to reckon with the transformation of intimacy and rethink heteronormative ideas of love. That Varun Dhawan, a commercially successful actor known for playing the often comically macho action hero in big budget films, was cast in this role indicates a generational shift.
So if not flexing their muscles or whipping out their wallets, how do men demonstrate love for women in “postfeminist” Bollywood? The rich, rakish brat of the past few decades epitomised by Shah Rukh Khan in Dilwale Duhaniya Le Jayenga or Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai—both of whose characters live off family wealth—has been replaced by the middle-class millennial who cannot afford to be swept away by the idea of love, often because he has chosen independence from parental control. Dan possesses a innocent charm that used to be reserved for female leads, a personality feature they have in the past years been divested of because of Bollywood’s brush with the changing conversation around gender. Here is a guileless hero, capable of emotional labour, his character coded in the way heroines have always been:, gentle, compassionate and self-sacrificing.
In the course of the film, Dan reveals that he is happier being a caretaker than doing paid work. Although he is not her partner or footing any of the medical bills, he is by her bedside all the time, often bunking shifts, making himself available to her family and taking note of the doctor’s updates. When a nurse asks whether Dan is Shiuli’s boyfriend, he is unable to define the relationship (a staple ritual these days). Yet some features of a romance are still there—when he discovers that she had asked where he was just before falling off a building, he rushes across the city to confirm this as she lies unconscious, as if she were harbouring a high school crush. In one scene, a doctor tries to ascertain the extent of Shiuli’s memory loss by having her move her eyes as an affirmative while responding to her questions. As the doctor points to each person asking if she can recognise them, Shiuli does not identify Dan. However, when the two are alone, she does. Initially hurt, Dan rationalises her earlier refusal by saying that it’s best that she does not let on that she knows him—imagining their relationship as an old-fashioned courtship, where a public declaration would only complicate matters that were best kept secret.
But there are ways in which October flouts the conventions of a Bollywood love story. Movies about the middle classes rarely show how their protagonists afford love. Romantic films pivot around the protagonists becoming consumed with the act of being in love—dating is often unimpeded by financial concerns, and while money is rarely mentioned, the couple can be seen participating in a consumerist lifestyle. In October, these realities are emphasised through scenes that are devoted to capturing what tragedy looks like in its ordinariness—how bills will be paid, what the balance between caretaking and life is and what sort of practical decisions about death need to be made. One sequence shows Dan trying to collect money to buy Shiuli’s medicines—he withdraws cash from the ATM and then borrows from friends vexed by his general unavailability and lack of contribution towards rent. At one point, after his expulsion from the hotel-management programme necessitates that his mother forfeit the security paid as part of its fee, viewers have as much cause to be worried about Dan’s downward spiral into an uncertain and insecure future as they do about Shiuli’s fate.
The trope of long-drawn out sickness, often terminal, has held great appeal in the romance genre because of how it allows love to encounter death. It is often a lazy, mawkish ploy to underscore the fortitude and power of true love that will persist till the very end—a doomed romance is a nobler one. In October, too, the possibility of impending death raises the stakes, but the woman becomes the beloved because she demands care, not in spite of it.
October defies the trend of faux-feminist “sex-positive” portrayals of Manic Pixie Desi Girls in recent movies who are wanted only for their ability to provide sex without strings; October argues for strings without sex. A friend who berates Dan about his professional negligence asks him why he is so affected by Shiuli’s condition. Dan retorts by asking the friend why she is not as affected as he is, why his emotional intensity about the possible death of a friend and colleague is regarded as an aberration and not the norm. In a montage set in Himachal Pradesh, where he gets a job after being fired from the Delhi hotel, we see shots of him agonising over Shiuli’s condition cross-cut with her anguish, overlaid with a phone conversation between him and her mother. The montage ends with him giving up the job and returning to the hospital to continue devoting himself to Shiuli’s recovery.
When Dan asks whether we should love someone only if there is a point, he is challenging the romantic regime we live in today, one in which right swipes can deliver risk-free returns. Trite and sentimental though it can be, October is a film responding to its time, trying to get at the anxiety plaguing a world of temporary hook-ups and low-stakes affairs. Virtual dating, a millennial culture of easy sex and insecure emotional connections have all led to a casualisation of the romantic-sexual economy. With the guarantee of sex or union off the table, the tale of a man who falls in love with a woman he barely knows by nursing her in sickness becomes appealing in a context in which people conduct affairs carelessly. The Cartesian conceit at the heart of today’s romantic paradigm is that there is a mind-body distinction: we can sleep with many bodies without it affecting our minds or hearts. This film presents an alternative to those representations. In a world where the ostensibly liberated but actually replaceable female body is celebrated, October tries to capture something deeper about the fantasies of modern romance’s great deception—if all sexually available bodies are the same, why fall in love with one that is not even available?
A previous version of this article misspelt the surname of the actor Kamal Haasan as Hasan. The Caravan regrets the error.
Kamayani Sharma is a teaching fellow with the Philosophy programme at Ashoka University, Sonepat. She writes on contemporary art for artforum, Art India and Take On Art.