Director: Ruchi Narain
Cast: Kiara Advani, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Gurfateh Singh Pirzada, Taher Shabbir
Guilty, a Netflix original from Dharmatic (the new digital content wing of Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions), is designed to be India’s first #MeToo procedural. It’s all there: He Said She Said, Why Did She Take A Year To Out Him, She Asked For It, She Is Attention Seeker, He Is Popular And Has A Girlfriend, Twitter Activism, Consensual Sex Not Rape, System Is Complicit, Class Divide, Woke Is Worst. In two hours, Guilty manufactures a world that attempts to address every possible socio-political dimension of the perpetrator-survivor dynamic. If Thappad was the necessary consequence of Kabir Singh, Guilty is an antidote to its brash male cousin, Section 375, which was an annoyingly effective movie based on a problematic point of view. In that sense, Guilty does a decent job of dissecting the discourse of a movement – far more astutely than its mainstream showstoppers – but it is tragically ineffective, and inert, as a film.
The film itself feels like a dry, stage manifestation of a Twitter thread. As a viewer, it’s difficult to empathize with any of the faces involved. In the process of covering all the moral and intellectual bases of a trial-by-social-media culture, the makers – director Ruchi Narain, writers Kanika Dhillon and Atika Chohan – seem to forget that their fictional story is merely a device to examine the complexities of a distinctly non-fictional time: It can’t afford to have “characters,” because it represents real people with real biases and traumas and secrets who are already performative victims of public perception. The premise can afford to be conversational, but the truth can – and is – not.
In attempting to humanize the hearts at the core of a sexual crime, Guilty actually ends up replicating the dehumanized gaze of casual observers.
Guilty features Kiara Advani as a Kafka-and-Faiz-spouting college hipster named Nanki Dutta, whose wealthy ‘heartthrob’ boyfriend (Gurfateh Singh Pirzada, as VJ) is accused of rape by a classmate (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, as Tanu Kumar) at the onset of India’s MeToo movement. The film largely unfurls through Nanki’s perspective, given that it’s always the partner – the wife, the girlfriend, the best friend – who is torn between a crippling emotional bias and the stifled intuitions of womanhood. Moreover, Nanki’s history – “fragile” is the term often attributed to her – also feeds the psychological ambiguity of an archetypical Kanika Dhillon screenplay. Three of the writer’s four recent scripts have used mental volatility as a crutch to weaponize the patriarchal conditioning of the average Indian woman. This works in line with the mental-illness-level scrutiny that a woman’s voice is subjected to, as opposed to her male counterparts. In both Manmarziyaan and Judgementall Hai Kya, viewers were dared to judge the unreliability of its female protagonists before they “vindicate” themselves by seizing an last-gasp identity. Guilty isn’t as successful, because Nanki’s psychosomatic meltdowns – which allow the director to experiment with the digitization of visual language – feel like more of a gimmick to extend the suspense of the truth.
The ridiculous hair extensions and tattoos don’t help Kiara Advani who, other than looking like Nauheed Cyrusi and sounding like Deepika Padukone, becomes a slave to her garish coming-of-age moment. Advani can act, but as is the case with the rest of her young friends in the film, it’s difficult to overcome the nagging feeling that a bunch of sane-minded adults are speaking through her. As a result, in attempting to humanize the hearts at the core of a sexual crime, Guiltyactually ends up replicating the dehumanized gaze of casual observers.
I understand why the setup is a Delhi University college campus and not, say, an office workspace or film production. The lazy explanation is that Dharmatic is an edgy alter-ego to Karan Johar’s glossy Student-of-the-Year sensibilities. But choosing a place of education – where ideologies, dreams and moral compasses are still raw, reactionary and revolutionary – allows the writers to appropriate the cognitive immaturity of adult gender dynamics. A campus incident, especially at this point in history, is likely to infuse the noise of a worldwide awakening with a sense of concise physical space. I also understand why we don’t see much of the survivor, Tanu Kumar – because the point of the film is to expose the inherent imbalance of (our) privilege. After all, nobody can mirror the experience and silence of a survivor.
The end credits sequence of Guilty is a thing of animated beauty, and reveals more about the scale of unrequired closure than the entire film that precedes it
But the effort to sway our reading of her (the slut-shaming, the Dhanbad lingo, the recklessness) and colour our interpretation of consent is so jarring that the climactic monologue – by Nanki, nonetheless – feels like a horribly insincere copout. Given Nanki’s surname (Dutta), the speech is perhaps a wishful nod to actress Tanushree Dutta, one of the foremost triggers of India’s MeToo moment. But it completely beats the purpose of the film. Not to mention the use of a self-righteous lawyer (a 90s-model-ish Taher Shabbir) as less of a legal device and more of a narrative trigger for the Rashomon-style flashbacks. He is hired by VJ’s influential family so that we hear every angle, every version, of the incident, but also so that we mock the faces and determine the conflict of conscience. His probing questions and unsolicited spiritual investment is far from organic, and one can’t help but imagine that perhaps a journalist might have served as a smoother – and more personal – eye of the situation.
The end credits sequence of Guilty is a thing of animated beauty, and reveals more about the scale of unrequired closure than the entire film that precedes it. It also reveals that an uneven film with a rational gaze is not much better than a crafty film with an irrational gaze. At this point, the bridge that connects the two is very…fragile.