I was very young on the day Indira Gandhi died. I remember the nationwide horror of losing a beloved leader and how it was overshadowed by the horror of watching Sikhs being dragged out on the streets and burnt alive for the ghastly assassination.
I remember everyone said, "How can the country go on without her?" But it did. History of genocide has a way of repeating itself, unless we learn from the mistakes we made in the past. So, here we are 32 years later looking through a film at the chilling carnage of an innocent community made vulnerable by the crimes of a few.
The film, made with touching earnestness, opens on the morning of October 31 depicting an ordinary day in the life of an affable Sikh family. The cut-and-dried treatment of the film, and our knowledge of the dreadful events that transpired on the day, give to the narration a kind of authority and power to move and shake us even when the goings-on onscreen are quite often underwhelming, both in terms of execution and performance.
Made on a meagre budget, 31st October is a big-hearted attempt to bring us the ghastly incidents on that fateful day through the eyes of a traumatised Sikh couple, played with reassuring sincerity by Vir Das (very convincing in his turban) and Soha Ali Khan (whose Punjabi accent makes a guest appearance at the start and then vanishes as we go along).
Their two little sons and their austere yet idyllic low-income existence in a Sikh-dominated locality of Delhi is ripped apart by communal violence so savage it shakes us to even see it onscreen so many years later.
Like Mani Ratnam's Bombay, this film humanises the terrible violence by throwing in two little boys and sundry characters who are chillingly real either in their demonised avatar or their humanism during the days of acute malevolence. Specially gripping is the Sikh family's car journey from imminent death to relative safety with the Sikh patriarch locked in the trunk of the car to avoid detection.
For all its made-to-shock manipulation, the scenes of violence and savagery shock as they are rude reminders of how vulnerable we all are as individuals and as a community. That day it was the Sikhs.
The melodramatic yet moving film makes this point with telling affect. It also shows the psychological warfare that human beings unleash on one another when political crimes intervene in ordinary lives.
When the assassination happens, the stunned nation is shown glued to the radio while the affable hero is instantly isolated by his office colleagues. Outside, his wife out shopping is caught in the sudden eruption of violence. Elsewhere a drunken NRI Mona Sikh pleads with the rioters to be killed like his friend was, and a drunken lout offers asylum to a panic stricken Sikh in exchange for his cash and gold chain, only to hand him over to the mobs.
Such characters and incidents belong more to a long-running serial than a feature film. Much of the drama is theatrical and the acting is plainly amateurish. But 31st October is a film that must be seen more for what it tells us rather than how it says it, about a shameful chapter from Indian history.
At the end, we see the now-old Sikh couple, trapped in a web of frustration and rage, still waiting for justice.
By Subhash K. Jha