Spotting Mumbai in ‘Gehraiyaan’

Since I am by no means a film critic, it’s critical I begin with a caveat. This is in no form or manner a piece of criticism or review. Like most people, I watch movies without any real thoughts. I suppose that is the magic of cinema, that it can compel a fugue state. Vacant of thought.

In my case, this usually leads to genuine entertainment. However, as I watched Gehraiyaan, I had at least one thought wrangling my brain’s interiors. Why was Alisha – Deepika Padukone’s character – never taking a Kaali Peeli?

Since the last time I was in Mumbai was five years ago, I had to catch up with the city. Have Ola and Uber swallowed Kaali Peelis, I wondered. Thankfully, they haven’t. While the iconic fiats have been withdrawn, the tradition of non-smart taxis remain. These taxis have managed to fight the tide of ‘smart’ cabs.

So there I was, back to square one, being irrationally annoyed by Alisha’s transport choices. Owing to my nostalgic and somewhat romantic attachment to the city, this really bothered me.

It is obvious which Mumbai Shakun Batra’s movie is about, so this wonderment is of course partly rhetorical. It would be out of class and character for Alisha to take a Kaali Peeli. While the colours of the taxi appear, they are in the far background. Because even though Alisha is struggling, her ability to aspire sets her away from such a transport choice.

The core of my wonder, however, was not the upper-class image of the movie. In fact, I enjoyed that. I enjoyed that because these actors were comfortable in their roles and none of it felt too much method or madness. It was entertaining without being discomforting despite the movie’s desire to touch upon precisely those kinds of themes. That’s not to say that actors should not challenge their comfort zones – what a horrendous thought – but only to acknowledge how entertaining comfort on screen can be. The mark of a great actor then is I suppose to alchemise method as comfort, which is a discussion that demands to be complicated by the question of representation on screen.

No, this much was obvious.

What was less obvious to me was how little of Mumbai there was in the movie. In retrospect, I realised it is difficult to spot Gehraiyaan’s landscape. We are shown skylines – late nights with twinkling buildings. A single second-hand book store. And Marine Drive. There are mesmerising, rhythmic tilts, evoking a sea-sickness maybe to reflect the emotional landscape of the movie, but it is also successful in evoking the claustrophobia of the city. How its challenges can eclipse its promise.

Also read: Mumbai: The City Where No One Cares

In a way, I think Batra assumes that the audience is aware of the movie’s location. A few nudges and we are supposed to be transported. And I was, due to my acquaintance with a particular part of the city. But what if I hadn’t been? Would the lack of landscape familiarity take anything away from the experience?

Very early on in the movie, Alisha makes a comment about the extreme halves of the city. The quintessential note on Bombay: a city that so sharply juxtaposes “toiling poverty and bloated wealth” (Fragments of the City, Colin McFarlane). But where is this other half in the movie? The movie’s landscape does not aspire to hold space for these notes. At some level, this is also an unjust point to make. An authentic portrayal of the city is not at all what the movie seeks.

But I am curious. Was there a way for the stunning, muted, melancholic colour palette to accommodate the city’s genuine chaos? Would it have added anything? Perhaps not.

Barathi Nakkeeran is a researcher and writer interested in cities. 

Featured image: Amazon Prime