Island City: Rage Against the Machine

The first few minutes of Ruchika Oberoi’s Island City take you by surprise, for they are remarkably silent. In this segment of the film — which comprises three separate stories related to each other — called The Fun Committee, we meet Suyash Chatturvedi (Vinay Pathak), a corporate drone getting ready for work. Suyash’s just begun his day, but he already appears tired: He silently irons his clothes, combs his hair, and picks up his shoes, as if automatically responding to a set of instructions fed to his system. Suyash’s a machine who works with spreadsheets, graphs and charts, for bigger machines. At his workplace he, along with his colleagues, walks in a straight line, swipes his badge and gets into the elevator. At this point, you can’t distinguish one employee from another, because they all have been accepted by the system, forced to become building blocks — ones who exist only if they are grouped together, not by themselves. So it’s not very surprising that we don’t hear a human voice in this world for quite some time; in fact, the first four lines uttered in this segment come via machines: the first by Suyash’s alarm clock, the rest three in form of automated announcements at work, which emit such banalities as “good morning”, “the humidity is 35 percent today”.

When Suyash’s given a day off because he’s been selected for a “Fun Day”, which expects him to complete a preordained set of instructions at a shopping mall, he’s perplexed, because he’s forgotten what it means to not be a machine. Here, even having “fun” means sucking up, toeing the line, and not thinking about and acting on personal desires. If this world is scarily strange, then so are its people. No one’s interested in conversations; everyone’s either dispensing or receiving instructions. During the course of this story, the only meaningful exchange, lasting for less than half a minute, takes place between Suyash and a video game console, which eventually calls him a “loser”.

The Fun Committee — darkly funny, absurd, and disturbing — is so fresh and relevant in terms of both content and execution that you feel thankful that a story like this has finally come to exist in Indian independent cinema, that someone finally made a film, or a part of it, on the most important story of our times: of ordinary people living ordinary lives, of mundane Mondays waiting for slightly worse Fridays, of staring into computer monitors without any joy or purpose, of relinquishing control in favour of monetary gains.

Ghost in the Machine, the second story in Island City, revolves around a middle class family — consisting of a wife, her mother-in-law and two kids — coping with a sudden traumatic life event: its breadwinner fighting for life in hospital. If a monolithic corporate featured as a character in The Fun Committee, the ultimate embodiment of agony and despair, here, a television serial, an overly melodramatic soap called “Purushottam — the perfect man”, assumes prominence, furthering the first story’s motif: You don’t necessarily need humans to enjoy life, that you need to reject them to become truly liberated and happy, because they don’t have the answers, machines do. Like The Fun Committee, Ghost in the Machine, too, unfolds on two levels: a) narrative — sequences driving the plot forward; b) thematic — underlying ideas, firmly related to one another, telling their own stories. Ghost in the Machine is easily the funniest part of Island City, but, precisely because of that reason, it’s also riddled with unique frustrating shortcomings: while trying to make this bit superficially entraining, Oberoi, at times, ends up falsifying her characters and the situations they find themselves in. A lot of scenes in this portion appear a little too clever for their own good, nudging and winking at the audience a little too hard, a little too frequently. The characters here seem to, for the most part, not reacting to each other, but the audiences’ expectations of them. Ghost in the Machine still manages to hold up well, though, as Oberoi knows what she wants to say, and ends up implying it well, never mitigating the harsher, uncomfortable truths of her story.

Contact, the final segment in this portmanteau, is centered on Aarti (Tannishtha Chatterjee), an employee at a printing press, who’s recently got engaged and about to get married. Aarti, like Suhas, is functioning on autopilot mode, executing a bunch of instructions without much thought or joy — going to office, returning from it, meeting her fiancé. And similar to characters in Island City’s first two stories, she, too, has ventured far from her world: She hardly makes eye contact or holds conversations with her family members, fiancé, or co-workers. Contact presents a chilling thought: People, ones we share our lives with, have exposed their frailties to such an extent that they have become redundant; that human beings are in search of machines — ones who can only pretend to know us. Aarti’s life also starts changing for the better in a similar fashion: She begins receiving a series of love letters from a stranger. In Mumbai, a city whose population exceeds 21 million, Aarti’s only hope of finding love is through words of someone she doesn’t know; the family in Ghost in the Machine chose to seek comfort in people who don’t even exist; Suhas was subdued so much, for so long, that he chose command over sanity.

Island City is not just about isolation, but also about slow detachment, from the world and its people, about letting go of apathy so we can empathise with machines better, about trying to be human but failing utterly and miserably at it.

This piece was first published in Firstpost.

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