Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Outsiders steer the wild heart of Gehraiyaan, the latest Dharma Productions film. Alisha (Deepika Padukone) is the emotional outsider in a childhood trifecta – her partner, Karan (Dhairya Karwa), is best buddies with her cousin, Tia (Ananya Panday). When Tia invites the couple for a weekend reunion, Alisha finds herself gravitating towards Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), Tia's fiancé and an ambitious outsider in an ocean of privilege. Alisha and Zain bond over a troubled family history. They kiss to deflate the monotony of compromise. They make love by virtue of having everything and nothing in common. They meet in private and blush in public. But the struggle to be is often rooted in the battle to belong. Alisha and Zain seek in each other a future that escapes not just the present but also the past. Their compatibility is not driven by choice so much as the desperation to acquaint desire with destiny.
What follows is a remarkably intense movie that crosses many bridges – connecting integrity and individualism, infidelity and self-realization, trauma and intimacy, aspiration and love. The outsiders of Gehraiyaan are not handled with kid gloves. They are cleverly cast, and the writing sets out to investigate their truth. Most of all, they are both victims and villains of their own fate. For strivers like Alisha and Zain, a relationship cannot afford to be just a relationship: it needs to feature all the gratification and good fortune that their peers seem to have inherited. It needs to build and repair at once. The risks are high, so the stakes are higher. I kept rooting for the alleged soulmates, without noticing that both of them are actually protagonists jostling to own the same narrative. There's only space for one. As a result, the good-looking love story heads into unchartered territory – the third act is a bit contrived, but necessary in context of the bigger picture. A revelation towards the end brings it all together with moving clarity. It's the moment I realized that the edgy domestic thriller was in fact a dark coming-of-age drama all along.
The film-making preys on the moral tension of our universe. We're so invested in the audacity of straying that, at some point, adultery morphs into agency. We try to understand why people react rather than how they act. Every other scene is a composition of identity and time. Things are in control till they're not; characters are genuine till they're not. Nobody behaves like a "type" – manipulative, insecure, naive, funny – because people are products of their impulses. Director Shakun Batra lets one moment spill into the next. Everyone fiddles with their phone while talking. At no point does an exchange go from conversation to statement, from emotions to words. The one time it does, the only character writing a novel mocks the gravity of dialogue. Similarly, the few instances of humour are not humour but lapses in pressure – a father gets annoyed by his son's nervous cussing during a marriage proposal, a man glances at his own name flashing on an adulterous colleague's phone in a meeting. The score – a mix of empty euphoria and whispery strings – sounds like an extension of not the film but its faces. Humans tend to process experiences through the music they like, so the tracks here are essentially a blueprint of their Hinglish moods. They think in sexy melodies instead of chaste lyrics; they imagine themselves as haunting music videos, not mainstream songs.
The richness in Gehraiyaan, too, is not a cosmetic language; it's a social crutch. Zain meets Alisha in luxury yachts and five-star hotel rooms, suburban apartments and fast cars. His real estate career is its own character – the most visual symbol of power. Kaushal Shah's camerawork alone suggests that Zain's addiction to the lifestyle shapes his reading of companionship. He views Mumbai as a playground of prestige and privacy. Zain knows that if he loses his money, he will also lose the courage to care; he suspects that love is futile without the story. Very few films acknowledge that feelings do not exist in isolation – and that professional success goes hand in hand with personal worth. The second half of Gehraiyaan is frightfully pragmatic in this sense. It unfurls like a biopic going off the rails, where the ghost of failure looms large over the spirit of chemistry. The formidable Siddhant Chaturvedi exudes a lopsided charm that enables this tonal shift. It's an uncomfortable role, but not an unrewarding one.
At its core, though, Gehraiyaan – like Batra's first two films – is a study of reluctant familyhood. The characters from Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012) and Kapoor & Sons (2016) were damaged by the shadow of their parents. But the ones in Gehraiyaan are damaged by their attempts to outrun the shadows. Alisha's decisions – cheating on a dead-weight partner, choosing a passionate lover – are a consequence of who she doesn't want to be, not who she hopes to become. She resents her past, but the broken flashbacks of a childhood tragedy reveal that she is perhaps too scared to join the pieces. She is, for all means and purposes, the lost daughter. Similarly, Zain and even Tia fashion a path of detours – finding stability to defy their parents' chaos – only to circle back to the beginning.
The film imitates the psychology of these young protagonists. Old parents exist as shadows, at the periphery of both mind and narrative. But their legacy creeps up on the kids who are trying to shed it. This ties into a generation's greatest fear – of turning into the very people we leave behind. In that sense, casting Naseeruddin Shah as Alisha's estranged father is a masterstroke. Alisha, like the audience, views him through the lens of Hindi cinema's go-to flawed parent. She blames him for all her problems. Ditto for the casting of Deepika Padukone, whose wonderfully resentful portrayal of Piku influences our perception of this film's father-daughter dynamic. When they argue, it's familiar. Alisha is not just Padukone's career best performance, but also one of the great portraits of contemporary womanhood. The film's recurring motif of water reveals her ability to straddle the space between sinking and swimming. She also gets that suffering is as much the voice of pain as the tireless sum of it. Her body at any point conveys the toll of living – the in-between days, the sleepless nights, the silent sobs, even Alisha's yoga stiffness.
In her hands, the spiritual leanings of Gehraiyaan acquire a life of their own. When the film opens with Alisha playing Snakes and Ladders as a little girl, it feels prophetic. Alisha's adult journey becomes a loop of her learning that luck – as per the game's ancient origins – is nothing but the marriage of karma and salvation. For outsiders, throwing the dice is about chance as much as morality. It's about snakes that look like ladders. Pasts that look like futures. And reckonings that look like resolutions.