Film review: 31st October

A haunting account of a family’s fight for survival

Posted: 26.07.15

I’ll be honest. Up until watching 31st October at The London Indian Film Festival, to me, the date only meant one thing; dressing up in crazy clothes to celebrate Halloween. Other than traditional Colonial history and independence, I don’t know much about India’s past which is why the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is an aspect of history that escaped my knowledge, until now.Harry Sachdeva’s haunting debut feature film 31st October is a real-life account of this episode that scarred India so much, the wounds are still healing.

On this date in 1984 Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh guards. In retaliation, members of the general public gathered together to seek revenge by murdering innocent Sikhs. An estimated 9000 were killed over a period of four days before the army stepped in to control the situation. But while this marked the end of the chaos, it was just the beginning of the pain for the thousands of civilians who lost friends, family, loved ones, belongings and homes. Some Sikhs fled abroad to start again, while those who stayed behind had to adjust to a new life, filled with endless nightmares, re-living the memories of the atrocities.

Depicting this harrowing tale was never going to be an easy task. But 30 years after it occurred, true accounts of this shocking genocide have been picturised for the big screen in a brave movie that features outstanding performances by protagonists Vir Das and Soha Ali Khan.

Written and Produced by Harry Sachdeva, the movie is a sensitive portrayal of one family’s experience of the night that changed their lives. Their story and those of the other characters, are inspired by Harry’s family’s own experiences, and of the many accounts he came across through the extensive research he undertook. He was just seven at the time, and his own closeness to the subject matter is what makes the story so heartfelt.

Harry’s skills as a filmmaker lie in weaving together a narrative that pulls at the heart strings by depicting characters we immediately bond with, and feel emotions for. Soha Ali Khan plays the mother figure with a natural quality that is rarely seen in Bollywood films, while Vir Das transforms his comic persona with ease, into the role of a gentle father figure, battling with health problems while trying to protect his children from the horrors that await them. As we follow their journey over one night it becomes clear how unfair, unjust and inhumane the tale of 31st October 1984 is. As a fly on the wall to their struggle, and their fight for survival, amidst a backdrop of human carnage, torture and atrocity, the viewer is never made to feel like they are being lectured.

The beauty in Harry’s storytelling is that it juxtaposes the appalling treatment of innocent Sikhs being attacked on the streets and murdered in their own homes with tales of the non-Sikhs who risked their lives to help their fellow countrymen.

To Harry’s merits, he has gifted us a story not as a political weapon to incite further hatred or frustration; but as a reminder about the value of humanity. What took place on the fateful night of 31st October 1984 should never have happened in India, nor should it occur again, in any part of the world.

In reality though, genocide on this scale and on even greater scales still exists, which is why 31st October is of relevance now and in the future…until the time comes when we as people appreciate how precious life is and treat each other with respect where such incidents are a mere reminder of the fragility of the human condition.

31st October (2015)
Written & produced by Harry Sachdeva
Directed by Shivaji Lotan Patil

31st October was screened at The London Indian Film Festival 2015.

Released international 21st October 2016. 

Momtaz Begum-Hossain

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