The greatest luxury of all is solitude. A city this densely packed affords no solitude,” wrote Suketu Mehta in Maximum City, as he described the assiduous city of Mumbai. The truth of this statement, it seems, remains true for many years now. And yet Ruchika Oberoi’s film, Island City, which has won this year’s prestigious FEDORA prize at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, finds a starkly opposite narrative. A Mumbai of emptiness and alienation form a part of the backdrop for her film. This, despite people being surrounded by more people in this crammed city, where ideas of control and freedom meet head on, where desires are smothered, in turn encapsulating themes that collide with as well as elide into one another.
“I have been in Mumbai for several years now. These are stories that I encountered here, mixed with my experiences, and the kind of black humour I gravitate towards,” says 42-year-old Oberoi.
The film strings together three stories which are rife with staggering contradictions. Oberoi finds faces from the crowd and gazes upon them, intently but from a distance, presenting the outlandish and the tragic, at the same time. While the first story is about a middle-aged man who wins a “Fun Committee Award” in his office and finds himself in situations of mandatory fun, the second is about a man on life support in a hospital. His family, finding relief in the situation, plugs into a popular soap every night, as the man, almost a dictator to his family, had banned TV. The third one is about a woman getting burdened under the pressures of earning a living and being in a loveless relationship. A letter that arrives at her doorstep one day changes everything. All the character sketches are bound by the city they are set in.
“There is a certain strain of isolation and alienation in all three. The idea, however, is to also look at control and freedom in different ways and through different viewpoints. A lot of times even trying to understand them myself. While I encountered the first situation due to my husband’s corporate job, the third one came close to my life, at one point in this city. The second comes from understanding life as I see it and know it,” says Oberoi, an Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) alumna, who grew up in Dhanbad, where her father was a doctor with a coal mining firm.
After a stint at boarding school in Darjeeling and then a graduation in English Literature from Delhi’s Venkateshwara College, Oberoi studied filmmaking at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, followed by a filmmaking course at FTII in Pune. “I was always inclined towards films.
But I didn’t know how to go about it all. I’m not from a film family and back when I was growing up and watching Doordarshan films, filmmaking seemed like a glamorous career, something I was interested in but didn’t know how to pursue,” says Oberoi, who had a stint with MTV, apart from being an associate director of National Award-winning film Chutkan Ki Mahabharat in 2004.
She wrote Island City in 2009 but could not make it for the lack of funds. She got funding in 2012 with her film becoming a part of National Film Development Corporation of India’s (NFDC) Screenwriters Labs and Film Bazaar. “I passed out from FTII in 1998 but it has taken me a long time to make my debut feature for the simple reason that one can dream of making one’s own film but it is really hard to do so. It was difficult to get funds. Plus an outrageously commercial project wasn’t my interest area. I’m glad I have finally managed to bring out Island City,” she says.
With Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Amruta Subhash in main roles, Oberoi is now looking at an India release and distribution of the film, “which does seem like a possibility after the award”. Oberoi hopes she can figure out funds for her next film, which she is working on.