Director: Shakun Batra
Writers: Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, Sumit Roy, Yash Sahai & Shakun Batra
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Ananya Panday, Dhairya Karwa, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajat Kapoor
Cinematographer: Kaushal Shah
Editor: Nitesh Bhatia
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Do din mein life nahi badal jayegi, Karan says to his girlfriend Alisha at the beginning of Shakun Batra's Gehraiyaan. Which is our cue that this is precisely what will happen. On the outing to Alibaug, Alisha meets her cousin Tia's fiancé Zain. Flirtation escalates into ferocious passion. This leads to heartbreak and tragedy but not the kind you expect. Which is perhaps why in a 2020 interview, Deepika described the film as 'domestic noir'.
Over three films – Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, Kapoor & Sons and now Gehraiyaan – Shakun has developed what you might call an observational verité style. This is constructed on naturalistic performances and fluid camerawork and editing, which capture a mood. Shakun is a self-professed student of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson and he describes what he does as "choreographing chaos." The best example of this is the superb plumber scene in Kapoor & Sons, in which the hapless plumber is witness to a dysfunctional family in an advanced stage of meltdown. The artful staging and camera movements make us a part of their warring. It's like we are standing in the living room with them.
Gehraiyaan works on the same principles but Shakun dials down the emotion and humour so drastically that the film becomes a victim of what I call Death by Minimalism, which is compounded by what I call Posh People Angst. Alisha, Zain, Karan and Tia are all attractive young people with varying degrees of privilege. Alisha and Karan, who live together, are struggling to stay afloat. Alisha is a yoga teacher and Karan is writing his first novel – Shakun and his co-writer Ayesha Devitre Dhillon who also collaborated with him on Kapoor & Sons, are clearly enamoured by writers. Both the brothers in that film were also novelists. The screenplay credit in this film includes Shakun, Ayesha and Sumit Roy. Yash Sahai is credited with additional screenplay.
Karan has quit his ad agency job which puts the burden of paying the bills on Alisha. In one scene, Karan is wearing a T-shirt that says, 'I'll do it tomorrow,' which perfectly encapsulates his laidback vibe. Meanwhile Alisha, who is still processing a tragic family history and anxiety issues, longs to do better. Tia and Zain are already living the good life. She is planning their wedding in Tuscany. He's running a major construction project in Alibaug and has rented a yacht to impress potential clients.
This yacht plays a pivotal role. Many scenes are set in a beautiful bungalow in Alibaug. There's also Zain and Tia's high-rise apartment with a walk-in closet. Shakun and DoP Kaushal Shah, who also shot the terrific Mumbai Diaries 26/11, never overtly accentuate the inherent glamour of these characters or their lifestyles but in places, it gets in the way. Visuals of a swanky yoga studio, luxurious hotel rooms or lines about getting goat cheese instead of burrata don't aid our empathy.
It also doesn't help that the dialogue – a mix of Hindi and English written by Ayesha and Yash – is occasionally stilted. Everyone says 'fuck' a lot. And the first half is dramatically inert. Despite the shots of the tossing waves, which perhaps allude to the tempestuousness of Zain and Alisha's relationship, there is a stillness in the storytelling that borders on tedium. The film finds its pulse in the second half when the tensions of these tangled lives come to a boil. But here issues of plausibility kick in. The screenplay doesn't adequately build up to what transpires. Suddenly Gehraiyaan moves into The Talented Mr. Ripley territory.
What stands out is the music – lovely understated tunes and background music by Kabeer Kathpalia and Savera Mehta. My favourite is the gorgeous song Doobey. And the performances. Dhairya Karwa works a nice, goofball charm. Ananya Panday gives her best performance yet as a privileged, slightly unaware princess who says lines like: Soch rahi hoon pottery classes shuru karun. I'm just so bored. But there is a childlike vulnerability to Tia that makes it impossible to dislike her. Siddhant Chaturvedi has the trickiest role – Zain is a slick hustler who is charismatic and opportunistic. He nails the part and Deepika Padukone is outstanding as Alisha, a woman gasping for air and attempting to conquer the demons of her past. Shorn of make-up and her inherent star dazzle, she looks even more lovely. And the melancholy in her eyes is heartbreaking.
Gehraiyaan finds its emotional momentum in the last fifteen minutes or so. There is a wonderfully staged, deeply moving scene between Alisha and her father, played with wisdom and weariness by Naseeruddin Shah. Similar to the father at the end of Call Me By Your Name, this father also gently imparts a life lesson about the importance of forgiving ourselves and others, and letting go.
In Hannah and Her Sisters, a film that Shakun cites as a major influence, a character describes the heart as a 'very, very resilient little muscle.' Gehraiyaan is a testament to that. The film never reaches the poetic heights it aspires to. But it is an intriguing excursion into the unfathomable and ultimately unknowable depths that men and women contain within them.
You can watch Gehraiyaan on Amazon Prime Video.