Director: Shanker Raman
Cast: Akshay Oberoi, Pankaj Tripathi, Ragini Khanna, Shalini Vatsa, Ashish Verma, Arjun Fauzdar, Aamir Bashir
Early on in Gurgaon, it becomes clear that Shanker Raman, a first-time director, is primarily a fundamentally sound cinematographer (Frozen, Peepli Live). He hasn't shot his own film here, but one can feel a lot of his instructions to Director of Photography, Vivek Shah. Noir dramas naturally lend themselves to a distinctive "look" on screen – a cinematically dark mood that is invariably manufactured, and almost deliberately stylish. It is the storyteller's job to constantly remind us of this seemingly ordinary universe despite, and not through, the craft. The film, we're then reminded, is a feeling. It's an organic atmosphere.
Often, though, there is the risk of extending this smoothness of imagery to the characters that populate the detailed frames. There's the temptation of making the faces behave like they belong to these well-produced pages. If the light is slanting a particular way and highlighting the texture of a room, or if the synth dominates the escalating score, most filmmakers feel obliged to make the characters do or say something memorable. Something "classic". A punch line or sleek decision or swift action hijacks the scenes, irrespective of whether these voices seem temperamentally capable of operating so modishly. A meek kid shouldn't turn into a sniper because the setting is killer.
Fortunately, in Gurgaon, Shah's beautifully pictured frames rarely accommodate equally cool elements. None of the characters are ever in control. They're like murky diseased fish occupying a crystal bowl. They don't look like they owe their environment a specific calmness or reputation. They make silly mistakes, leave loose ends, talk nonsense (or rarely talk at all) and mess up kidnappings and negotiations. They're human in a generally unremarkable sense, instead of being high-functioning humans and plot devices in context of a velvety crime thriller.
It helps that none of them inherently come from money – they're almost reluctantly wealthy in their modern bungalow, like overnight lottery winners – which is why they're mostly ill at ease and uncomfortable. And strangely isolated.
For instance, you keep expecting Kehri Singh (an inimitable Pankaj Tripathi), the murderous Haryanvi patriarch weighed down by his own history, to "own" every scene he's in. In a Godfather-ish way. He has that aura, that silence, at the head of the dining table. He looks like a man with loud blood on his hands, a remorseless God-fearing figure whose "personal life" we're invading. But instead he mumbles away incoherently, tired and wasted, and drinks his pressures away while coming across as little more than a farmer at odds with his fancy mansion. We want him to be an ominous gangster, but he's just a bad father. Maybe an ailing one, too.
Everything is state-of-the-art and contemporary, except him. And, of course, the rest of his family.
DoP Vivek Shah's beautifully pictured frames rarely accommodate equally cool elements. None of the characters are ever in control. They're like murky diseased fish occupying a crystal bowl
His older son, Nikki Singh (Akshay Oberoi), too, isn't very different – for reasons that dawn upon us only by the end. His father resents him, tolerates him, bullies him and runs him down, which is ironically what will turn Nikki into him. Kehri instead favours his "foreign-return" architect daughter Preet (Ragini Khanna) to carry on his corrupt real-estate legacy. As a result, Nikki is an under-confident, emasculated rich boy who thinks he is intense. He thinks his gaze is penetrative. He thinks he can have his sister kidnapped to extort money from his father so that he can clear his debts with a bookie.
But he is not as smooth as he thinks. Nobody in this film is. Not even Kehri Singh's shady brother (Aamir Bashir): the indie-film equivalent of Al Pacino's jaded-cop cliché (or Om Puri's no-nonsense Gupt role) called in to clean up the mess and rescue the girl. None of them are colourful or fascinating enough to occupy a typical genre vehicle; Gurgaon's palette enables them.
You'd imagine Nikki is more of the bratty types who'd much rather just murder the bookie. The law is his, because the land is his father's. But he has been bullied and intimidated so much by his father that even his primal instincts are suppressed. He'd much rather pull one over his old man than do what his surroundings have trained him to. This irrational aesthetic is in stark contrast to Raman's lilting and sure audiovisual language. It's like Bolero playing over the sight of a slow-burning train wreck.
Because Nikki is, essentially, a victim. In Konkona Sen Sharma's A Death in the Gunj, we see another socially diminished avatar of Nikki's – Shutu (Vikrant Massey). Shutu, though, is a civilized product of tragedy; he is weak enough to inflict harm upon himself instead of others. Even in Zoya Akhtar's Dil Dhadakne Do, a mollycoddled and oppressed Kabir's (Ranveer Singh) moment of insanity involves jumping off a giant cruise liner.
Nikki, however, points the gun outward instead of turning it towards his own temple; his lashing out is dangerous because he becomes a violent reaction to his family. The pent-up angst pours out in an unintellectual North Indian manner, not a self-serious East Indian way. Oberoi's light-eyed cold-bloodedness lends credence to this volatility in a way that lets the film take any unresolved direction it chooses to.
Nothing about the abduction is smart, either. This works well for the kind of people we are watching. The writers ensure we are acutely aware that we aren't watching a flashy heist saga. Everyone involved (Nikki's nervous younger brother, and bumbling best friend – all evocatively performed) is clumsy and indecisive. It is never going to end well. Consequently, one keeps expecting Raman to go all gritty shaky-camera on us and pound us with tense music, but he resists. There's a steadiness to his chaos. There's a simmering language to some sequences.
Twice we see the infamous Gurgaon toll plaza, and in both cases incidents that change the course of the film occur here. In the first instance, while a driving Nikki forces his friend to bet a crore on Sehwag scoring a century (the domino effect begins with this loss), we see two men in the background get into a fistfight. The violence almost seems casual, and taken for granted. Nobody watches or cares. The second instance proves why; it involves an abrupt shootout in a more desperate situation. Natural progression.
Both involve local cars leaving Gurgaon and going into Delhi, long after the workforce from the region's multinational offices and hubs has flittered out. The film is so exclusive in its focus – on one particular family and their withering karma – that one views this toll plaza as a border that reluctantly lets out the demons to play at night. Like a single-screen audience stuck in the swanky confines of a multiplex, Nikki and his likes, too, exit as if they are escaping the modernization of Gurgaon every night to search for wilder pastures. They are the ones who by hook or crook made Gurgaon into what it is, and yet remain unable to identify a sense of belonging in the concrete of their own homes.
They feel even more rootless – powerless, even – on the other side of the border, which is why the toll plaza is perhaps where their misguided privilege and existential conflict reach boiling point. Necessary mistakes – that were once made in the nonjudgmental space of deserted fields – are now made in cramped cars and flats, while their hostility is often directed to the "outsiders".
But this idea in no way condones the few flaws in Raman's narrative. One of them is the representation of the two characters that don't belong to this landscape. Raman focuses too hard on trying to outline the obvious cultural differences between both worlds. Language becomes the simplistic separator here; Preet's visiting European girlfriend (Anna Ador) appears to be an obvious alien device – our eyes and ears – for the establishing portion of the family's dysfunctional nature. She exists to immediately point our gaze towards the gap between "normal" and "Gurgaon".
The storytelling too becomes a little sub-thread-heavy towards the third act; at one point, Gurgaon's narrative is forced to construct a coherent story by flitting between four simultaneous situations
But it's the integration of a rock-band bassist (Srinivas Sunderrajan) into the plot that takes forward this theme. He's the only sign of nobility in this story, but his stubborn use of English is less of a character trait (he does speak a few lines of Hindi, and it sounds perfectly fine) and more of a forced "classist" antidote to our Jatt anti-heroes. It's amusing when it shouldn't be. His compassion as the only sympathizer to Preet marks him as someone who has to be smarter than being an urban simpleton who ends up patronizing his tormentors. Perhaps it's an act on his part to throw them off, or perhaps Nikki and his gang insist on treating him as a caricature (the "anyone who isn't us, is a firang" attitude), but his personality doesn't sit well in the heat of action.
The storytelling too becomes a little sub-thread-heavy towards the third act; at one point, Gurgaon's narrative is forced to construct a coherent story by flitting between four simultaneous situations. All of them are going downhill by now. I don't expect hard logic or order here, but combined with transitional flashbacks to Kehri Singh's village days, it appears that the director attempts to disguise this spiraling ambiguity under the veil of hypnotic temper-based montages. He tries to show instead of tell. Even the inserts and stock shots are lovely to watch, but I was left slightly confused by the whereabouts and physical continuity of certain key situations.
Perhaps I felt a little more frustrated by these issues because Shanker Raman's vision is largely a case study in tonal theatrics. Its technical design isn't gimmicky, and it doesn't indulge the unpredictability of the characters. I remember each of the locations vividly; each has a sound and anxious expression about it. Gurgaon therefore lies somewhere between being a film and a region – punctuated by the twin anxieties of wanting to know less and more.
In that sense, it can be mentioned as the final wheel of the "NCR terror trifecta" along with NH10 and Titli. One can even imagine Pankaj Tripathi, Ranvir Shorey and Deepti Naval growing into one another. The films more or less share the same cinematic universe, too, which is – fortunately for cinema, but unfortunately for this country – all too real. And all too true. Especially, if there are no survivors.
Watch the trailer here: