Principal cast: Deepika Padukone, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Ananya Panday, Dhairya Karwa, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajat Kapoor
Director: Shakun Batra
Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins (approx)
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video
In a 2013 blog post entitled Genre Bender, novelist Julia Crouch addressed the background of her coinage of the term ‘domestic noir’ and defined it as follows: “In a nutshell, Domestic Noir takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants.”
Unsurprisingly, filmmaker Shakun Batra used this literary subgenre to describe his intentions regarding his then-untitled next film.
Six years after Kapoor and Sons (2016), his previous directorial venture, Batra elaborates upon the tonalities that he sought to initiate in that film and steers into the skid of fashioning a grittier and more invidious cinematic milieu in the form of Gehraiyaan. While he can be reproached for presenting visibly non-sparkling old wine in a barely sparkling new bottle, Batra is clearly aiming to attain here a “the more things change, the more they stay the same”-esque approach with regard to the film’s conception of the foibles of its characters, who become impressions of their dreaded pasts.
As a result of its willingness to dive into the depths of woes and desire beyond the grime on the surface, Gehraiyaan is often effective as a tour de force of feverish tumult that is audacious in its intent to not allow the viewer to fully sympathise with any of its four key characters. On several occasions, the film also admittedly becomes a bit of a charlatan, shakily hobbling along on its quest to attain the intellectual fruits of the audacity that it flaunts.
Alisha Khanna (Deepika Padukone) is a yoga instructor in Mumbai who is unsuccessfully seeking investment for a software application that monitors the accuracy of yoga postures. In a household where she is temporarily the sole earner without a determinate income, she lives with Karan Arora (Karwa), her partner of six years and an unemployed aspiring writer. The trauma of parental conflicts and a disturbed childhood that Alisha perennially bears with her is aggravated by the drudgery of responsibility and her feelings of detachment from Karan, which are largely actuated by Karan’s inability to provide Alisha with any ingress into his contemplations.
Alisha has not communicated with her wealthier paternal cousin Tia Khanna (Ananya Panday) in a while, but Tia considers Karan to be her “best friend” since the three of them were children. Tia invites them to a retreat at her beach house in Alibag, where they meet her fiancée Zain Siddiqui (Siddhant Chaturvedi). In the eyes of both Alisha and the viewer, Zain’s apparent dexterous vitality is projected in sharp contrast to the complacent banality of Karan. As they interact further, Alisha and Zain devolve into a torrid entanglement which provokes a cascading frenzy of increasingly more labyrinthine conflicts.
As is evident from its premise, a narrative such as this requires the writing of the pivotal points of disarray to be both taut and relaxing, akin to a calming pandemonium. Put differently, the viewer must be given room to both breathe and hold their breath simultaneously. The script, co-written by Batra, Ayesha Devitre, Yash Sahai, and Sumit Roy, manages to generate that effect to a certain degree. Those attempts of the script, however, are frequently undermined by clunky and rigid dialogue-writing that is permeated by dense corporate jargon and a vexing obsession with having the characters utter the word “f_ck” every few seconds; the latter is presumably to thrust the point of them being casually conversant in colloquial English down our throats, which is a point to note since a large section of the dialogue is entirely in English.
Conversations between partners and investors of corporate firms often occupy significant portions of the plot, which might make it inaccessible to large sections of the audience. For instance, if one is unaware of the financial usage of terms such as ‘valuation gap’, ‘shell company’, ‘overhead’, etc., one might be somewhat confused about plot events that relate directly to said terms.
These oversights are emblematic of a larger problem that is gradually exposing itself as a mainstay of Batra’s cinema; as of yet, his scripts are seemingly incapable of conceiving a narrative space beyond the confines of a plutocracy of emotional complexity dominated by the English-speaking urban/sub-urban bourgeoisie. This, unfortunately, broadens the aesthetic distance between the writer and the spectator, especially in a country like ours.
The primary characters, each uniquely self-absorbed and solicitous of nothing but their immediate whims, are written to suggest a shared unreliability. In more crucial moments, however, it does tend to forgive Alisha a bit more; discernibly so in the deduction of conditions for duplicity from trauma. In addition, it does not help the film’s case when, at times, the writing (particularly in the second half) seems to worship escalation and belligerence between its elements at the cost of the nuance that it was bent on bringing to the fore. Consequently, the narrative is stained by tonal dysphoria, the pacing periodically loses focus, and the film fails to measure up to the poetry of disenchantment that it wants to be.
The visual grammar of the film is where it unleashes most of its potential. Kaushal Shah’s cinematography is stellar, and hues of blue dominate the overall colour palette. While it is hackneyed to resort to blue for gloom, it works here by not being lurid, and by naturally merging with the film’s seaside settings. Batra’s direction of the film’s visual style was foreshadowed in Kapoor and Sons, particularly the rhythms of the camera’s movement. Scenes are often interspersed with the motif of gushing and crashing waves, perhaps representing Alisha’s struggle to straddle the difference between transient immersion and inescapable engulfment in a bid to distinguish desire from self-inflicted despair.
In certain parts of the film, slower camera movement and more focused close-ups might have been preferable; once the geography of the shot has been established, a “domestic noir” such as this one might have chosen to shift from mid-shots or long shots to tighter close-ups, which does not happen in this case.
The editing by Nitesh Bhatia is also not without its share of rough edges, some of which manifest as awkward and abrupt cuts between shots that required more time to bloom. Different shots scattered throughout the film do, however, reflect aesthetic infusions from filmmakers such as Paolo Sorrentino, Chloé Zhao, Zoya Akhtar, and others.
With clear influences of contemporary electronic lo-fi/chillwave music, the three songs of the soundtrack, composed by independent musical duo Kabeer Kathpalia (OAFF) and Savera Mehta in their film debut, complement the visual texture of the film well and are distinct in the canon of recent Indian film music.
As far as the cast is concerned, Deepika carries most of the film’s weight on her performance, which she seems to execute without a shred of effort or exhaustion. The role itself is a noticeable departure from most of her earlier performances and, contrary to general perception, that is not merely in terms of kissing/undressing on camera. She is remarkably comfortable in inhabiting the relentless discomfort that Alisha battles constantly, embodying the understated suffocation of a character that cannot escape the anxiety of potential pain.
Panday is surprisingly bearable as Tia, a shallow brat born into decadence who cannot prevent her more observant vulnerabilities from revealing themselves. Chaturvedi minutely falters at times and is somehow not as dependable as he was in Gully Boy (2019) or the first two seasons of Inside Edge (2017-present), but that might have more to do with the character. Zain’s quiet ruthlessness and adroit underhandedness, progenies of his ambition, are ultimately captured skillfully by the actor. Karwa as Karan is an unavoidable disappointment; neither he nor his character have the slightest trace of a personality. This one needed both better writing and better casting.
At the end of it all, it is Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of Alisha’s father Vinod Khanna that expectedly steals the show. His scenes with Deepika are arguably the highlights of the film. It is this character, and the scenes that detail his attempts to establish a more operational relationship with his estranged daughter, that will probably strike many as the most memorable parts of the film. The character of Vinod is also, in many ways, a befitting antidote to the tradition of the venerable sacrificing mother in Indian cinema.
In the days preceding the film’s release, as part of the glorious tradition of defiling a piece of art before it has even been exhibited, controversies raged around the film’s stance on the ethics of infidelity. All that can be said without divulging more of the plot is that the film neither condemns nor justifies infidelity. It is certainly not aspiring to be viewed as a moral fable, nor is it a romanticisation of a spectacle of deception. If anything, Gehraiyaan is a stinging warning against the surfacing of latent cruelties that can be triggered by greed and dishonesty. The amoral treatment of the central conflict makes way for moral dialogue and lends the film a lot of its intrigue. As a way for fairly moneyed folks to spark a conversation with a partner or a companion, the film is certainly an interesting watch. Then again, if one needs a film to kindle a conversation with a partner, several of Gehraiyaan’s psychological beats might feel familiar already.