Shakun Batra’s ‘Gehraiyaan’ wants to be so subtle and tasteful that it forgets to be interesting, involving

Posted on February 12, 2022

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Spoilers ahead…

After watching Gehraiyaan, I continue to get the feeling that I got after watching Kapoor & Sons: Shakun Batra comes across like someone trying to work his issues out through his movies, the way writers exorcise their demons through stories. Or is it just coincidence that his films – Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), and now, Gehraiyaan – are about children with puppeteering parents? This time, the parent (the mother) appears mostly on the phone, on video calls, and the child is Tia (Ananya Panday). Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), too, has a monster father. Is Shakun also creating a movie-world of his own, where each film is a chapter? Tia was the name of the Alia Bhatt character in Kapoor & Sons, and like in that film, we get a writer here.

I think it’s redundant now to say that Shakun Batra belongs to the ever-growing cadre of Hindi filmmakers who think in English, so I’m not going to harp on the odder-sounding lines: “Don’t you want ki book publish ho?” or “Dad ko temper issues the!” I don’t know why he just doesn’t make his films in English, because his characters all act in that Hollywood way, that Hollywood style to the extent that they barely seem Indian. Every scene seems to have been style-coded with a look book: not one colour that doesn’t belong to the palette is allowed to peep in, not even in the form of a tie. There is so much good taste that if the film farted, it would smell like perfume.

But the bigger problem in Gehraiyaan is that the only depth is in the title. The story has Zain engaged to Tia, and he falls for her cousin Alisha (Deepika Padukone), who has a boyfriend, Karan (Dhairya Karwa; this is the writer-character). Tia is the best-defined of the lot. She is a child-woman who lives in a big, rich bubble – and her monster-mother never lets Zain (who was middle-class) forget that he has been allowed to enter that bubble. Karan has quit his “soul-sucking” advertising job to write and Alisha – a yoga teacher – is left with the bills. When Karan hurts Alisha and leaves, Zain happens to come by, and they make love. They have flirted mildly earlier. Now, the “mild” turns to “wild”.

And there begin the issues. What does Alisha feel the day after cheating on her boyfriend? We get a scene where she makes a wince-face when Zain rings her doorbell. She has her hand on the doorknob and her look says “What am I doing?”. Or it could be saying “Damn, I thought it was a one-time thing.” Or it could be saying “Fuck, I am not just cheating on my boyfriend but also betraying my cousin.” But almost instantly, these feelings vanish and they go to bed. And they go to bed. And they go to bed. And they go to bed. What does Zain feel, by the way? Is he a cad? He says he has feelings for Alisha but they rarely make themselves felt.

I am not asking for more “thought in English and translated into Hindi” dialogue, that explains everything. But I would have liked to enter their heads. I can see Alisha feeling cooped up at home and preferring to spend time on the open sea in Zain’s yacht. What I can’t see is where her character arc is going: with Zain, with Karan, with Tia. All the relationships feel superficial, and I laughed out loud when Karan proposed to Alisha. I have heard of self-absorbed men. But Karan takes the cake and the bakery.

In other words, all the interstitial scenes have been jettisoned (because, of course, this is a “subtle” film), and transformed into whatever we make of them. One of the ickiest bits of screenwriting has Alisha run into Karan – randomly – in a crowded Mumbai street, and learning something important from him. Another icky bit involves that old trope about checking your fiance’s phone. And when the story veers into noir territory (not American noir, but French noir, obviously), the segues are off. Because, again, all the interstitial scenes have been transformed into whatever we make of them. Half the time, I kept wondering, “What is Alisha really thinking at this point?” or “Why is she crying all the time?” Why not give her some dignity? Surely, there is some strength in this woman, where she talks coolly, calmly – and not just in bed.

There’s a long corporate arc that really tests your patience. This is where we get to really know Zain, so I understand why these scenes needed to be there. But after all this office stress, when he gets back in bed with Alisha, is it just a happy ending, or is his heart, too, being massaged by her (apparent) love? Kapoor & Sons managed to mix Shakun’s Hollywood sensibilities with a palpable Hindi-film vibe. Gehraiyaan just feels like Match Point meets Purple Noon/The Talented Mr Ripley meets Unfaithful meets any number of Hollywood infidelity dramas. It’s overlong. It’s boring. Irrfan Khan, in Piku, had far more chemistry with a radiant Deepika than the one between Alisha and Zain. None of the actors register strongly, though I suspect Deepika’s high-decibel histrionics will be applauded as great acting. But then, for that, you first need a great character, no?

Copyright ©2022 Baradwaj Rangan.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi