Gehraiyaan: A New-Age Bollywood Drama? Or a Potentially Confused Mess?

The mismatched writing in Gehraiyaan has interesting ideas up its sleeves but doesn't offer credible characters
Gehraiyaan: A New-Age Bollywood Drama? Or a Potentially Confused Mess?

Tackling serious, greyer themes such as infidelity in Bollywood is often viewed with suspicion, as the conversation is often dominated by corporate cinema where there's often little to argue over and get excited by. It was Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna in 2006 that blended such mature themes by imposing them onto a more traditional mainstream template. More than 15 years later, the third feature collaboration between producer Karan Johar and director Shakun Batra tackles similar themes in its portrayal of urban characters with Gehraiyaan.

Alisha (Deepika Padukone) and Karan (Dhairya Karwa) have been together for six years and plan a meet-up with her cousin Tia (Ananya Panday). While they spend their vacation around yachts and beaches, Alisha exchanges a few words and sweet glances with Zain, Tia's boyfriend. The lingering camera on their faces implies how they would later be inevitably drawn toward each other. Alisha gets anxiety over her childhood memories and takes a bunch of anti-anxiety pills for that reason — unusual for a yoga instructor who wakes up at 4:00 am. She is at crossroads both on the professional and personal front. Meanwhile, Zain is a guy who takes what he wants; a clear symbol of what masculinity could look like today, engulfed in corporate BS. Karan, who clearly has a more conventional name, has polar-opposite philosophies to Zain's. A struggling writer who just quit his safe job in the hope of publishing a new book, his approach to pursuing life seems relatively straight and simple.

It was Zoya Akhtar along with her co-writer Reema Kagti who changed the Bollywood landscape by humanizing the urban rich characters that her films often focus on; there's both a sense of arrogance and vulnerability in how her niche characters move and behave. Gehraiyaan too tells a similar story of people living in Mumbai, some flying in and out of L.A. every once in a while. The film starts off by promising us that it's going to be a thoughtful deconstruction of dysfunctional and complicated modern-day relationships. But soon, I found the characters superficial, with an arms-length distance between me and them, and not in a good way.

Much of the drama in Kapoor and Sons felt hermetic as it relied on creating tension through its minimalist approach of focusing on the mundane, in order to create high stakes. The narrative fragmentation along with its circling characters made Gehraiyaan feel more like a film concerned with throwing metaphors just for the sake of it, rather than one that tells an engaging story with relatable characters. Cinematographer Kaushal Shah (Mumbai Diaries 26/11) manages to incorporate the looming melancholy over the vastness of the blue sea with the film's internally damaged characters. But the disjointed structure of the screenplay and the painfully obvious drought of dialogues render the film into a drama that doesn't justify its lengthy runtime. The film has been called a domestic neo-noir by its cast and director. I understand that making an unconventional drama while adroitly incorporating contemporary themes can be a daunting task. I also understand how deeply influenced Shakun Batra's style is by great filmmakers such as Robert Altman and Woody Allen. The director's proven how incredibly capable he is of telling intimate family dramas before. I think the main problem here is having multiple writers (the film has four associated writing credits including Batra himself) struggling with whether they wanted to make a thoughtful character-driven tone poem or a high-stakes drama.

At a point in the film towards its corporate-world-focused second half, I couldn't help but associate some of its themes with HBO's Succession. Other than emphasizing (or at times even going overboard, no pun intended) on showing what the repercussions of corporate greed could look like, the film also delves into how there can be an underlying manifestation of glory in the darkest of human impulses. I don't mind the film going down the Freudian route, but there are hardly any moments of restraint in any of the drama that unfolds. Gehraiyaan constantly has scenes with loud intense stand-offs, leaving no room for nuance whatsoever. It's a travesty, then, having Deepika Padukone as the lead here, who brings commendable and occasional solitary moments of pensive sadness, with an aching sense of loneliness in her eyes. It's no wonder that the only emotion which somewhat hits home is the one conveyed through Naseeruddin Shah, who plays Alisha's distant father, towards the film's ending.

As it entered into the second act, unable to impress with scenes that would push the narrative in a meaningful way, Gehraiyaan opted for multiple frivolous musical montages, turning itself into a desperate sales pitch.

The mismatched writing in Gehraiyaan has interesting ideas up its sleeves but doesn't offer credible characters, just postures of them. In its attempt at portraying the reality of how youthful idealism can at times corrosively intervene with childhood-imbedded regrets which gradually encroach on an individual, the film forgets to fill gaps of developments in its characters' lives that come out of nowhere. The movie invites you in through its intimate camera moves, focusing on many images of gorgeous people kissing and caressing each other in the midst of deep blue currents. But in doing so, it abandons the older way of Bollywood storytelling while constantly wobbling its way in order to find a new footing.

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