Gehraiyaan isn't what anyone expected: A deep dive into Shakun Batra's fragile romantic drama

Published on Feb 13, 2022 07:11 AM IST

Shakun Batra's Gehraiyaan will no doubt get more love over the next few years. But right now, there are a few things that just did not sit right.

Deepika Padukone and Siddhant Chaturvedi in Gehraiyaan.
Deepika Padukone and Siddhant Chaturvedi in Gehraiyaan.
BySuchin Mehrotra

Gehraiyaan was, for me, a difficult film to reckon with. Like its characters, the film makes decisions and goes places that aren’t always easy to agree with and buy into, let alone understand. I'm still processing much of it.

Co-written by Ayesha Devitre and Sumit Roy, Shakun Batra’s film is part romantic-drama, part unsettling (in more ways than one) romantic thriller and part delicate portrait of inherited trauma. Put simply, it’s not exactly the film we were expecting. Much like one of its main characters Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi, who continues to display impressive range), a case could be made for how the film is unable to contain its own ambition and is arguably even partly undone by it.

For me the film's greatest victory is the stillness, freedom and breathing room it offers us to interpret and navigate it. It's also a film that we'll no doubt appreciate more with time, not one that's built for instant, often reductive knee jerk reactions.

Deepika Padukone in a still from Gehraiyaan.
Deepika Padukone in a still from Gehraiyaan.

Shakun’s film is about reckoning with your past and the messy, painful process of coming to terms with it. Shortly before diving headfirst into their adulterous situationship, in one of the movie’s many early moments of foreshadowing, when they meet at her yoga studio, Alisha (a marvelously restrained Deepika Padukone) tells Zain “I don’t want to be stuck like mom”. “You don’t have to be”, he responds, “you just have to make different choices”.

Alisha (Deepika Padukone) is already defined by her difficult past and the choices of others at the beginning of the film and has to contend with the fallout of many of her own punishing choices by its end. She witnessed her own mother die by suicide when she was a young girl as a result of what Alisha believes was a strained marriage. Living with that pain and the belief that her mother felt so trapped in her marriage that she took her own life, has left Alisha scarred. She also has a barely-there relationship with the father (Naseeruddin Shah whose filmography now has its own subgenre of playing the absent father - ZNMD, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Kaun Banegi Shekharwati, Main Hoon Na and beyond) she blames for it. That is of course until Alisha finds out the truth. A truth which first breaks her before ultimately setting her free.

In the same way, as she believes her mother once did, Alisha feels trapped in her own relationship with childhood-friend-turned-long-term boyfriend Karan (an impressive debut by Dhairya Karwa). It doesn’t help that Karan, who appears to be little more than another entitled man child who wants to be taken care of, is also a writer who’s recently left his job to expand his insecurities and write a novel.

Gehraiyaan is directed by Shakun Batra.
Gehraiyaan is directed by Shakun Batra.

Surely saying someone is ‘asking to be cheated on’ is not okay, but if it was, the often insufferable Karan comes pretty damn close. He takes Alisha for granted, and seems to plug in and out of the relationship as he pleases. He doesn't believe in her ambitions but expects her to support his. Karan demands that she compromise, unable to see that that's all she has been doing. He may love Alisha and be dependent on her, but he no longer sees her.

Their strained dynamic offers the ideal conditions for disruption. Enter the charming, smooth-as-butter Zain--fiance of Tia (a heartbreaking Ananya Pandey), Alisha’s cousin who she’s drifted apart from. To reconnect and catch up, the cousins and their partners spend a Drinking Buddies-style weekend together in Alibaug, where sparks fly. Thus setting in motion the turbulent journey ahead. In another cheeky moment of foreshadowing, while Karan is trying to reassure Alisha that taking the trip with Tia will be worthwhile, he says, “relax …do din mein life nahin badal jayegi”.

Minutes after they first meet, Alisha looks at Zain--a look that lingers a moment beyond mere acknowledgment. A few hours later, when they arrive at the Alibaug house and Zain directs her to her room, as she walks away, his eyes similarly linger after her a second too long.

Later that evening, Zain unapologetically flirts with her without an inkling of hesitance. He isn’t cautious, he doesn’t tiptoe. As they begin to increasingly message and meet and test each other’s, and their own boundaries, Alisha seems less sure of herself while Zain is far more intentional. Perhaps this isn’t his first time cheating on Tia. It’s one of the many questions that remain unanswered about Zain through the film.

As Alisha and Zain increasingly happen to each other, we’re left wondering whether Zain is the “solution” Alisha is looking for. Is this true love found in the messiest, most unfortunate place, or is he another bad decision? More bad luck. Zain and Alisha are both seeking an escape from their circumstances--her from her strained relationship with Karan, and him from feeling owned by and indebted to Tia and her family. Which raises the question of whether Zain ever truly loved Tia at all, or was it born out of necessity? The price of the opportunity and investment she comes with. Perhaps some mix of the two that he himself can’t tell apart anymore.

While we never truly feel Alisha and Zain’s love and connection. I was never “rooting for them”, I’m not even sure we’re supposed to. My reading of the film was that Alisha does truly love him, and Zain, too, believes his words when he says he loves her. His words aren’t dishonest, but there’s a hollowness to them. He certainly thinks he means them, a facade that even he doesn’t seem to be entirely aware of.

Naseeruddin Shah and Deepika Padukone in the movie.
Naseeruddin Shah and Deepika Padukone in the movie.

If the first half of Gehraiyaan is an Alisha movie, the second becomes Zain's. The nuanced messy romantic drama gives way to a more conventional romantic thriller. Plot steamrolls character. I was so prepared for pain, devastation and moral complexity, but what I didn’t expect was just how stressful Gehraiyaan becomes. As we shift focus to Zain juggling the logistics and burden of adultery, his time fractured between two women, for the sake of his crumbling business he realises leaving Tia for Alisha is no longer an option. But Zain doesn’t seem to be crushed by that idea. The ease with which he can cut off from each and switch between both women says a great deal about the limit to what love means to him. “When no one is looking out for you you have to look out for yourself,” he tells Alisha in one of their first meetings. Something he’s internalised more than he realises.

As it dawns on him that Tia and her money is the immediate future he wants, suddenly Alisha isn't his destination but a complication to be ‘handled’, as Rajat Kapoor’s Jitesh puts it. Alisha is no longer his escape, but the threat he needs to escape from. An impulse that leads to his death in that movie-altering yacht murder scene where Zain falls into the water and I felt like I was thrown overboard. Zain’s death was a leap I couldn’t buy into and it felt like it belonged in a different movie. It didn’t feel organic as much as it did a cop-out to give Alisha a burden it needed her to bear.

Also read: Gehraiyaan movie review: Deepika Padukone outdoes herself in Shakun Batra's film but it isn't enough

And maybe that’s on me. Maybe Gehraiyaan was always a thriller and the 90-minute romantic drama that came before was merely buildup. Maybe I felt hurt because I was hoping for a different film rather than trying to engage with the one that was given. Thankfully once it shakes off its high tension thriller-ness, for me, Gehraiyaan regained its feeling by shifting its focus back to a tender This Is Us-style intergenerational portrait of two women, a mother and daughter, and Alisha trying to break the cycle of pain stemming from their choices. It’s a journey of healing that begins with my favourite scene in which Alisha talks to her father as the two finally discuss the truth that has come to define them both. A deeply compassionate conversation that granted them, and me, the permission to breathe out.

We are more than the sum of our mistakes, he tells her, and moving on from our past is a choice. Whether we let it define us or give ourselves the chance to break free of its hold. Sink, or swim.

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