Shakun Batra’s Deep Dive Into The Polarising Effects Of Gehraiyaan

"I think the film is a bit of an unfamiliar animal, especially for mainstream Bollywood," explains the director
Shakun Batra’s Deep Dive Into The Polarising Effects Of Gehraiyaan

Everyone has strong feelings about Gehraiyaan. Unlike his more wholesome and crowd-pleasing 2016 film Kapoor & Sons, Shakun Batra's latest release on Amazon Prime Video has almost split the audience down the middle. After a week of going through messages of appreciation, flat-out abuse and high praise, the filmmaker tries to make sense of why people are worked up about his film that begins as a relationship drama and then unexpectedly veers into thriller territory. "I think it is a bit of an unfamiliar animal," explains Batra, as he does a post-mortem analysis of his film.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

I'm amazed at the volume of writing and social media discourse around Gehraiyaan. I've read pieces that have called it a landmark film, others that have said it's an extremely shallow film about rich South Bombay people. Then there are the memes. How have you processed all of this?

Shakun Batra: At some level, I did want a film like this to spark a conversation. I knew that there could be a polarised opinion. But the extremes to which it has gone… I got an email which straight up said 'Bh*****d, agar picture banani nahi aati toh kyu bana rahe ho?' (If you don't know how to direct, why make a film?) On the same day I got an email from a psychologist in Australia who appreciated how the psychology of these characters had been dealt with. It took me time to understand that there are such extreme views on the film, but I have to say that I'm now more ready to embrace it in totality. I'm happy to take the bad, I'm happy to take the good. I wanted people to have an interpretation of this film and now that it is happening, I can't go and correct these interpretations.

Have you got a sense of what it is about the film that makes it so divisive?

Shakun Batra: The movie is not without its flaws but that said, I'll tell you a few things that we've tried to understand. I think the film is a bit of an unfamiliar animal. In the mainstream, people expect things to be a certain way and when you experiment and step into the unfamiliar, it unsettles people. The film also ends at a place where it doesn't tell you what to feel… It tries to have a one-on-one relationship with the audience. My hope was that if two people watch the film together, they could both take home a different feeling. Now if you feel a little more unsettled, and you don't sit with yourself and try to process why you're feeling what you're feeling, then I think you could have a reaction that is not positive. You then latch on to a reviewer, somebody who tells you what to feel. I feel like that's what's happening. People are trying to find somebody who agrees with them.

Then there are people who are taking that little extra moment to think about what the film made them feel. That was something I was really hoping for. The views have been polarised to such a point — I was sent a screenshot of the IMDB ratings and 60% of the reviews were divided between 0 and 10. About 27% of the votes were zeros and about 35% were 10s. Some of the people who reviewed it said that they think the movie is a 7, but were giving it a 10 to fight the zeros.

I'm really curious to see what becomes of this film. In the short term, there is the noise and the debate. But like (David) Fincher said, the only true test of a film is if, over time, people still mention it, if it still stays with them.

Do you feel viewers are more dismissive when you tell stories about privileged people and their misery? Is it harder to get people to care about them?

Shakun Batra: Somebody asked me this a few days ago. We are a bunch of people discussing a film — there is nothing more privileged than this already. So to say that rich people don't have problems would actually be us talking about this. Discussing a film is not a real-person problem. But to people who are part of this world, it seems real. I'm sure that there is a certain section of the audience that feels alienated but I want to find stories in this milieu and I want to encourage people to find more stories in it because there is somebody who's going to hear an interview, or watch a film, and get scared of making a rich-people film because too many people are saying, 'Don't.' You never know, there could be someone out there who could make a Succession.

If I could go back and make a different kind of a trailer, one that shows the film as a thriller, I would love to see what that could have done.

Let's go back to the marketing of the film. Was there a deliberate attempt to throw people off? There was a lot of chatter about the intimacy and then people went crazy on Instagram making food and travel reels to the songs. And then the eventual film you get is quite different.

Shakun Batra: The marketing of the film has become really interesting for me to analyse. When we first started talking about domestic noir, or a film in which we're trying to lean into the psychology of these people, everyone said that it was going to be too esoteric, that people may not understand the conversation, or that they may find it too dark and we may end up alienating them. So we did agree that calling it a complex relationship drama was a more relatable way of talking about it. Intimacy, unfortunately, became a conversation on its own. I really tried to keep it as down-low as we could because I realised that it was becoming a whole new conversation. We credited the intimacy director (Dar Gai) on the poster and after that, it just became a big conversation. I always knew that this is not a film in which the intimacy is what you're going to talk about once it ends.

As for the reels, we were very happy about people taking such a liking to the music because we were trying something new, unlike the popular stuff that you hear. People were making reels about food and vacations. Now the meaning of that song is entirely different in the context of the film, but people were connecting to it in a whole different way. Today, the audience is a quasi-producer. They create the film with you, so some of it is not in your hands. Having said that, I was worried because I was getting messages from people after watching the trailer saying, 'Oh, I feel the heartbreak. I can see these characters'. I was always scared because I knew there was a surprise coming, and I could not reveal it to them. So when they saw the film, it worked for some, and didn't for others.

There is the good and bad of marketing.The good is it that it managed to create this buzz around the film that got audiences to watch it. The bad is that maybe it did not prepare them enough. That brings with it a huge amount of learning. With enough objectivity and with enough time, hopefully, I can break it down further and learn from it. If I could go back and make a different kind of a trailer, one that shows the film as a thriller, I would love to see what that could have done.

Were you nervous about how the genre shift in the second half would land? I think many felt Zain's character turned murderous out of the blue and it didn't end up looking plausible.

Shakun Batra: I won't say I was nervous, but it was an experiment. I wanted this film to be everything — a sibling film, a tragedy, an infidelity story, a thriller. I was trying to pack in a lot. I knew that it would have challenges on the edit table and it took us a long time to make sure that it would still feel like one film. I was actually excited to do this genre shift. As a filmmaker, it excites me that you can play with the audience's expectations a little bit.

In terms of plausibility, that's a separate conversation. I did speak to a lot of people, even a couple of cops to understand how something like this could be swept under the rug. I could have gone more into that but I wanted Zain's character to be a bit more mysterious. I wanted people to be unsure of whether he could do it or not. And yes, there is a version of the film in which I could have prepared people more, given them a little more insight into it, but I wonder if it would have been at the cost of letting go of this kind of unpredictability. So it was a bit of me playing, trying and experimenting to see how it lands.

One thing I truly feel is that all the experimentation we do is in the independent space. We do not leave enough room in the Bollywood mainstream to experiment. I think if you put this film in the hands of say someone like Alankrita Srivastava, who is a female director making a female-driven film, it would change the lens on it. Coming from Dharma (Productions) and Deepika Padukone, and then me having made a certain kind of warm family film in the past, I think people were shaken a little more.

Everyone knows that you're a big Woody Allen fan. Given the twist in the second half, people are naturally pointing to parallels with Match Point. What is your response to that?

Shakun Batra: I have never shied away from being not just a fan, but a student of Woody Allen. Now he's become very controversial, but I'd be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. I can't erase those films from my mind, right? Just to go back to what Woody Allen himself said about Match Point… People spoke about A Place in the Sun as a film he was trying to re-explore in his own way and I was trying to do the same. I was trying to re-explore Match Point in a way, but was trying to say something different. If you look at any infidelity thriller, the tropes are the same. There's an affair that goes wrong, there's a pregnancy, a murder. Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful, these are films that belong to the same world. So I'm playing with those same tropes but what I'm trying to do with it is entirely different. A Place in the Sun is about greed, Match Point is about luck, and my film is a lot about choices. I think that's the fine line between inspiration versus plagiarism.

If you watch two Woody Allen films, Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanours, they're very similar. There's an affair that goes wrong, there's a murder… but what he's trying to do is completely different. What I'm trying to do is play with the genre conventions of an infidelity thriller and say something entirely different.

We do not leave enough room in the Bollywood mainstream to experiment. I think if you put this film in the hands of say someone like Alankrita Srivastava, who is a female director making a female-driven film, it would change the lens on it. Coming from Dharma (Productions) and Deepika Padukone, and then me having made a certain kind of warm family film in the past, I think people were shaken a little more.

What was it like directing Deepika Padukone? Her character is dealing with deep trauma through the film. What did it take to extract that performance from her?

Shakun Batra: I'll tell you a joke which I don't think I've told anybody. Like you said, there was a lot of trauma, moments of stress and crying. It was emotionally challenging to constantly take her to those places so I suggested that she start keeping glycerin in her make-up bag. And then I began pulling her leg by calling her 'Deepika Pav-kilo' because that pav kilo glycerin. We spoke about her own challenges with anxiety because she's dealt with it and she knew the feeling we were going for. She understood that suffocation and claustrophobia which some people may assume that a star like her does not. We had long conversations about her graph and the key moments during which she feels either liberated or stuck or trapped. All the credit goes to her for staying open. There are enough jokes about me taking a lot of takes but she's that person who comes to the gym, wants to train, wants to work hard. She knew why we were pushing and where we were trying to go. Crying can be hard and it can become monotonous but you are also trying to graph it so that those moments look different. We would laugh a lot after the scene was over because it would make everyone lighter. We would do a tough scene and then all crack a bunch of jokes and laugh.

Gehraiyaan, of course, is a Hindi film but you've made choices like going with a soundtrack which isn't very Bollywood. Your characters speak primarily in English. Do you think about these things while making a film? Does it bother you that you may be alienating a large section of the Hindi film-watching audience?

Shakun Batra: Yes, sometimes people do say, 'This doesn't sound like a Hindi film'. I think those things don't affect me so much. I don't think of audiences as Hindi or English, I think of the story. I always ask myself: Does this story connect with me? And are there enough people who may connect with it? Sure, I don't have that kind of a mainstream taste or aesthetic that connects with the majority of the Bollywood audience. But I would be inauthentic if I tried to be a different kind of a filmmaker just so that my film reached more people. I'm not making a product because I know that you want it. I'm creating something because I love it. And then you have the option to choose whether you like it or not.

You've never faced pushback from producers for these choices?

Shakun Batra: Thankfully, I've been one of the lucky few who has been so blessed that my producer and the actors I work with trust me. When Karan (Johar) saw the first cut, he said, 'I think this is a new kind of a thing, but I know that you are being honest.' They're happy to support me because they feel that it's coming from the right place. Then they gave me their feedback and what could be different and they said that maybe if I did this or that, it would reach a bigger audience. I totally get that. It's not that I'm against it. But as I said, I believe that status quo is the death of the mainstream. For us to grow, we have to allow room for experimentation and for mistakes to happen in mainstream Bollywood. If we don't, it will be a really boring place.

Tell me about the end. Did you consider many alternate endings? More conclusive ones?

Shakun Batra: The intent was always the same. We have another ending, which I partially shot. I really hope one day I can put it out, and I may actually. Once we sat to edit it, we felt differently so then we reworked the ending. We took another day and reshot it. But the old couple was always there. There were a few other things that were different, a few things that were the same. I won't say too much because I think I'd like to put it out.

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