“Gurgaon”… A sumptuous-looking but remote crime drama, more concept than cinema

Posted on August 4, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Early on in Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon (“inspired by true events”), Preet (Ragini Khanna) walks into the kitchen, greets her mother. She’s come home after studying architecture abroad, and her mother, after a quick embrace, hands her a plate of pakoras to deliver to her father, who is in the adjoining room, making merry in a Holi party. So far, so normal – and yet, there are undercurrents. The atmosphere isn’t exactly… warm. Much later, Preet, who is adopted, will have a conversation with her mother in this very kitchen, and realise why the vibes are so chilly. But that’s the temperature of the film itself. There are spouses, parents, siblings, girlfriends – there’s no love. Why else is Preet’s mother not at that Holi party?

Maybe it’s also that she’s a woman. The party is filled with men, and a shot positions the two adjacent rooms as two different worlds: the party room, full of revelry and noise, and the kitchen, silent as a tomb. Has Preet’s mother not been invited? Has she never been invited to step into that other world? Shalini Vatsa plays this woman as a cipher, bound tightly in shawls that come to seem like straitjackets.

The noir-ish“story,” revolving around a botched kidnapping, is painfully simplistic, and the characters are overfamiliar types. The daughter who won’t stand up to her father when he picks the man she is to marry could be from, say, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayange. The  suppressed mother, the doting-yet-distant patriarch (a wealthy property developer named Kehri Singh, played by Pankaj Tripathi) – they, too, could be from that film’s universe.

As could Nikki (Akshay Oberoi), who comes off like the character Parmeet Sethi played (the heroine’s fiancé), an entitled lout with equally loutish hangers-on. He’s Preet’s brother. He resents what he considers his being given to Preet, whom he doesn’t regard as a sister. (Though, as with their mother, the problem may also be that Preet is a woman.) We first see Nikki while he is doing the ice-bucket dare (I told you this was a cold film), which doesn’t seem all that much a challenge because he doesn’t seem warm-blooded at all. He wants to build a fancy gym on family property, but his father has earmarked it for a residential complex, to be designed by Preet. Insult, meet injury.

I was also reminded of Aurangzeb, another Gurgaon-set family opera that carried echoes of older films. I wrote in my review: “Like Trishul, it is the story of corporate battles involving fathers and sons in Delhi. (We’re now in the shining new India of Gurgaon.) Like Deewar, it is the story of a well-heeled crook who lives with the equivalent of the sex worker with the heart of gold. Like Don, it is the story of twins – one good, one bad – who are swapped. Like Do Kaliyaan, it is the story of children who transfer their affections, in a manner of speaking, from the parent they grew up with to the parent they move in with.” But Aurangzeb was more mainstream, with smashingly old-school lines like, “Ab yeh shehar badhte badhte mere ghar mein ghus aaya hai.” Gurgaon, on the other hand, comes off like DDLJ sodomised by Anurag Kashyap’s sensibility.

When groped on a bus, Preet knees her violator in the groin, and yells to the driver: “Ey betichod, bus rok!” There’s even an Anurag Kashyap “bit,” where Nikki and his cohorts command a guitarist to sing. Nikki has lost a ton of money, and he needs to take it out on something, someone. One of them says, “Bon Jovi ka kuch bhi baja de.” Another one says, “Chal Basanti, naach!” The bewildered musician asks, “Who’s Basanti?” I laughed, but this isn’t just a joke. It’s also a reminder that these people may have money, but they aren’t the posh, golf-playing types. As with the city the film is named after, their roots are still in the Hindi heartland, with all its frightening behavioural codes.”

We get a voiceover at the opening, that man, underneath the veneer of civilisation, is an animal, and that animals have their codes that a clever hunter can crack in order to catch them, but if this goes on recklessly, the jungle is in danger. The metaphor has potential, but it ends up heavy-handed. It’s one thing to bemoan how urbanisation is swallowing up Nature. But do you have to put this exact sentiment into Preet’s mouth? (“Concrete jungle banayenge to asli jungle bhi kat jayega.”)

Gurgaon is like… a dazzling edifice in Gurgaon. It’s imposing. It’s also remote. The director drains all life from his scenes till they come to resemble modern-art tableaux. (Kehri Singh’s mansion looks at once opulent and empty) The city is far from teeming. It seems populated by just this handful of people, who stand around in painstakingly (and one must admit, gorgeously) composed frames, daring us to give a fuck. Which isn’t to say that the only worthwhile films are those that grab us emotionally. But something’s off when even a bathtub strangulation resembles a champagne commercial.

This often happens with cinematographers who turn directors. (Shanker Raman shot Peepli [Live].) The great Ashok Mehta made Moksha, which you couldn’t sit through, but boy, would it have looked great on someone’s wall. The messy stories (Kehri Singh’s past) and the psychotic behaviour (just wait till you get to the end) are boxed in by the micro-calibrated compositions – they aren’t allowed to spill over. Cinematographer Vivek Shah fills the screen with shadows reminiscent of The Godfather. I kept thinking about that film. Pankaj Tripathi’s superbly controlled performance – essentially, a mask in motion – looks like a riff on Brando’s. There’s a toll-booth murder. And the events spring from the Balzac quote that’s the epigraph of Mario Puzo’s novel: Behind every great fortune there is a crime.

Gurgaon is meticulously constructed: note, for instance, the symmetry of Preet being glimpsed in the backseat of the car at the beginning, and at the end. It’s the same image, but the tonality is poles apart. The problem is what’s behind these images. It isn’t as profound as the film seems to think. “The world I am attracted to is that of entitlement and the power dynamics prevalent in a patriarchal society,” the director said in a recent interview. Gurgaon feels like those words, like a thesis in search of a movie.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi