An early scene in Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan – lasting for not more than a few seconds – encapsulates its whole essence. True to the film, it’s a story-within-a-story. Its protagonist, Alisha (Deepika Padukone), is watching an old home video. It’s a scene from a family vacation, where she recognises something familiar: her pre-teen-self trying to wear a sweater – it gets stuck in her neck and covers her head. Alisha can’t see or breathe; she tells her mother that she’s “suffocating”. That feeling – of being stuck and stifled, originating from her childhood – has hounded her all her life.
Her mother used to speak about the same feeling; she hung herself from the ceiling fan (suffocating herself further) when the pain became unbearable. Like many children of discontent parents, Alisha fears her ultimate fate: that she, too, will become like them, that she, too, will not be able to escape their history. It is even more difficult for her, as she literally lives with her past.
Growing up in Mumbai for a few years, she had befriended Karan (Dhairya Karwa) and Tia (Ananya Pandey). Karan, a former ad writer now working on a book (noob move), he has been dating, and living with Alisha for the last six years. Caught up in his own world, he is absent-minded and negligent. Alisha, a yoga instructor, has been struggling to raise funds for her mobile app. She avoids her father, blaming him for her mother’s death. The sweater has stuck again: She feels “suffocated”.
But she reconnects with Tia, and the childhood troika takes a vacation. This time, there’s a new member: her fiancé, Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi). Alisha realises in some time that Zain, carrying his own past scars, isn’t too different from her. Like Alisha, he couldn’t save his mother. Unlike Tia and Karan, he’s not from a well-adjusted family – he’s not ‘normal’. In the sea of flickering and cold tube lights, Zain is a warm glowing bulb: someone who has been there, someone who gets it. They chat, drink, and share stories. They banter, flirt, and hook up. The sweater has, finally, begun to loosen. Alisha can, at last, breathe.
Gehraiyaan, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is a drama that, unlike its protagonists, is comfortable in its own skin. A movie about chaotic characters and conflicting feelings, it unfolds with admirable simplicity. It simmers at the right pace, and even when it starts to boil, that transformation feels natural – even expected. Like Kapoor & Sons – Batra’s last directorial, the best Hindi film of 2016 – Gehraiyaan makes its backstories trickle. Sometimes we see fleeting flashbacks; sometimes characters in the present reference their pasts. These nuggets are carefully sprinkled – resulting in an evolving story – creating a sobering effect: it feels like we’re growing with the characters. But increased knowledge doesn’t always lead to increased fondness – sometimes the more we know about these people, the less we like them. This fascinating interplay between awareness and confusion makes perfect sense, for it exemplifies the film’s most memorable layer: that Alisha, fixated on finding and moulding her story, is living a lie.
These dualities find an able companion in Batra: a ‘light’ filmmaker who gravitates towards deep subjects. This relaxed approach is most evident in the initial portions of the movie, where the characters, holidaying in an Alibaug villa, are getting to know each other. The conversations have a distinct life-like rhythm; the dialogues sound real. The performances are so natural that you feel like a fly-on-the-wall – not one muscle strained, not one meaning imposed. Unlike Imtiaz Ali – and numerous other Bollywood directors depicting modern Indian romance – Batra truly gets it. Alisha and Zain, for instance, take their time. It’s not just physical attraction. They talk work, they unwind; they initiate a carnal contact, then recede. There’s a lot going on here – desire, confusion, guilt – and Chaturvedi and Padukone’s excellent chemistry teases out every strand. Almost nothing in Gehraiyaan just happens – there are build-ups, acts, aftermaths – and, as a result, we don’t just get the sense of watching a story but embracing it.
The production design heightens the considered realism, spanning a vast range of settings, from luxurious villas and yachts to modest apartments, emphasising the various divides, including class, between Alisha and others. Unlike many Bollywood friendships, Gehraiyaan doesn’t treat the unit as one solid entity. Crucial differences set them apart – and those differences matter. Tia and Karan went to the US to study, but Alisha, not as affluent as them, stayed in India, unable to escape once more. Due to their much cleaner pasts, Karan and Tia are more close to each other; Alisha feels like an “outsider”. It’s a nuanced take on contemporary friendship, where many mini-stories live in a story, where heroes and sidekicks swap bodies.
This method exists for a reason. If Alisha’s arc asks the question ‘how much do you know your family?’ then Tia’s secrets posit a fascinating counterpart: How much do you know your friends? In Gehraiyaan, self-preservation is an eternal season. The writing brings it out beautifully through Zain, a man who lives and romances like an opaque-faced poker player. Many films would have softened his edge, tried to make him more ‘likeable’. But Batra doesn’t cushion his ‘anti-hero’. He even looks fine for the most part – a great example of deceptive perspectives and their immersive power – for we feel exactly like Alisha. Like her, even we start to believe a lie. In a chilling scene, he commits a grave mistake, gaslights her, and she apologises. It’s a memorable scene on its own, but it’s also an understated commentary on gendered coping mechanisms: the man burns the world; the woman burns herself.
The narrative circularity unfolds at several levels. There’s of course an obvious ‘suffocating’ parallel between Alisha and her mother, but the writing dives deep, drawing powerful similarities between her relationships with Zain and Karan, between Zain’s present and past, between Zain and Tia’s family (they treat him less like a prospective son-in-law and more like their employee; he returns the favour by considering them business investors). The subterranean through-line connecting Alisha and her mother sharpens in the subsequent portions: the impulses to trust, pursue an impossible romance, accelerate towards self-sabotage.
While watching Gehraiyaan, I was compelled to wonder, more than once, that Batra may have peaked a bit too early with his last film. Flashes of Kapoor & Sons kept coming back to me, for the two films share striking commonalities: a ravaged past, scattered secrets, marital and filial discord (even the character’s occupations, novelists). But unlike Kapoor & Sons, which had a consistent piercing quality (I remember tearing up in the theatre more than once), Gehraiyaan is less moving. Which by itself is not a problem, different subjects demand different tones. But unlike his last, Batra’s latest stumbles in its final few steps.
The sloppiness of two climactic scenes stand out in an otherwise assured drama (don’t worry, no spoilers). Both of them involve Alisha: one is a conversation with Tia, the other with her father (Naseeruddin Shah). These portions verbalise big thematic points (that we already know), feature visual flashbacks (that we have already seen), underscore a straightforward, even a roseate, worldview (that belongs to a different film). Gehraiyaan had shoehorned the ‘stuck’ metaphor earlier as well – via several overt dialogues – but it wasn’t a deal-breaker, as those bits were spread out. These two scenes, however, feel like narrative and expositional dumps, eliciting an unsettling feeling: that the movie maybe running out of ideas.
The writing quickly regains control though, concluding the drama with an economical kicker, tying its disparate strands with a small scene, a conversation between Alisha and a stranger. It’s a classic ‘iceberg’ moment. On the surface is just one question; that old lady has met Alisha before and is trying to recall her name. But beneath the surface – her recognising Alisha will expose her cruel secret – the iceberg keeps growing and gnawing and mocking: You can leave your past, but your past doesn’t leave you.
Featured image: A still from the movie Gehraiyaan/Amazon Prime
This article was first published on The Wire.