Photo: YouTube screengrab
Photo: YouTube screengrab

In doing things that are just not done, Gehraiyaan leaves us with important questions

In some ways, the film is a cautionary tale about how people always choose themselves.
Updated 02 Mar, 2022

When the promo materials for Gehraiyaan washed ashore, wave by wave, so did the judgment; dismissals of the movie’s reliance on sex, admonitions for its investigation of infidelity. As the music from the film — salty tracks frothing sea foam and poetics about love, passion and loss — thrummed on repeat, calcifying forever spots on my playlist, I found myself questioning: what is it about brown bodies embracing, touching, finding passion and navigating betrayal that makes us so uncomfortable?

In my digital spaces I witnessed a collective dismissal of the film on the basis of its assumed exploration of infidelity. Almost as if stories that document what one could quite reasonably argue is a somewhat universal struggle — of craving security yet being afraid of stagnation, of wanting the comfort of an unfaltering love but also the thrill of something new — were somehow less legitimate. And I wondered at the reluctance to find meaning and learning in a close examination of forms of intimacy that don’t fall into neat categories of acceptability, despite our collective acknowledgment of how limiting those categories can be.

And yet, after actually watching the film, I realised that to say that Gehraiyaan is a film about infidelity would be reductive at best and untrue at worst. Infidelity threads through the story, but its utility is that of a plot device.

Ultimately, Gehraiyaan is a nuanced exploration of people living with and dealing with their trauma. The narrative pushes us to consider — are all the choices we make really just a series of trauma responses? Are we bigger than our mistakes and the mistakes of those who came before us? Can we break from our past and create new meaning?

In its two-hour-and-28-minute run, the film opens a window into the life of Alisha, (Deepika Padukone), a yoga instructor haunted by the death of her mother. We find her stuck in a rut — trying to launch a yoga app that glitches, attempting to sustain a relationship she isn’t happy in, struggling to pay bills for a life that doesn’t even feel like enough. And yet she holds on to all those things with a desperation, guided by the fear of ending up like her mother who took her own life.

Deepika Padukone as Alisha
Deepika Padukone as Alisha

Enter Tia (Ananya Pandey), Alisha’s first cousin whose life has all the things Alisha finds lacking in her own. Despite having grown up in similar circumstances, the choices of their parents left them in vastly different positions in life. On a weekend getaway, Tia’s fiancé, Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi) — a real estate developer with big dreams and a fancy yacht— walks into Alisha’s life.

It was on the second watch that I knew to name the discomfort I felt watching him pursue her. His pursuit is brazen, reckless — thrilling even — but it is also undeniably predatory. In fact, one could go as far as to say that Gehraiyaan is really a film about a man preying on a woman’s vulnerabilities and unresolved trauma. He fills all the gnawing gaps in her life — provides funding for her app, gets her a new yoga studio, validates her, believes in her, and gives her an escape. And as you find yourself rooting for them, for Alisha’s chance at happiness and escape, you also find yourself repeatedly dismissing a creeping sense of discomfort. What is it that they actually like about each other? Why are they so willing to invest trust and love and money into each other so soon, despite their circumstances?

The sex distracts. It distracts the characters from the realities of those questions, but it also distracts the viewers from delving into the things that appear to not add up. Gehraiyaan is the first Bollywood film to employ the use of intimacy co-ordinators. And while there’s been a lot of discourse surrounding the film’s choice to include extended sequences of sex, what’s gotten left out is the functionality of those portrayals of intimacy for the narrative itself. The physical intimacy between the characters builds a closeness, a warmth between them that has you rooting for them even as you are left mistrusting the pace of their relationship and the risks they’re willing to take. As a visual storytelling tool it pads on to the narrative in a powerful way and instructs you to find meaning in things that are left unsaid.

Siddhant Chaturvedi as Zain
Siddhant Chaturvedi as Zain

And eventually you realise, those moments of discomfort and mistrust served as a necessary roadmap to the betrayal that marks the film’s turning point. And in a break from conventional, moralistic takes on infidelity, the takeaway, is perhaps that people don’t make imperfect choices for perfect reasons. Alisha’s trauma dictates the choices she makes, and Zain’s does too. His particular experience of trauma has conditioned him to believe that he must always look out for himself, no matter the cost. And so when he finds himself resentful and bored in a relationship, he seeks out another, no matter the cost. When he’s required to make a shell company for a loan he needs, he registers it under Alisha’s yoga studio, no matter the cost. And when Alisha becomes a threat to his legacy and livelihood, he’s willing to kill her — no matter the cost.

In some ways, Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan is a cautionary tale about how people always choose themselves. Alisha and Zain’s relationship, while presented as a love that exists despite the odds, is really never that — it is a love that exists because of the odds. The choices they make aren’t for the other person — they both constantly choose themselves. But what the film forces you to consider is whether we really have agency over our choices. Did Alisha and Zain even have a real shot at making different decisions? Or did the trauma they grow up with hardwire them to behave in ways they could never grow from? As Alisha is driven to a point where she’s on the precipice of mirroring the very fate she spent her life running from, she asks her father — do my choices even matter?

And while that question is haunting, devastating, and one that resonates, to bring us to that point, Batra makes controversial choices with his narrative to the displeasure of many critics. Gehraiyaan starts off as a brooding, moody, introspective take on complicated relationships but it dramatically shifts genres as it draws to a close. The last half hour houses an attempted murder, an actual murder, blackmail, a police investigation. Shakun Batra describes it as ‘domestic noir’, a genre categorisation that is used to describe stories that explore violence, danger and moral chaos within the domestic realm. And while that genre specification holds true for the latter half of the film, you’re left questioning the utility of the jarring shift towards it.

Genres are systems of categorisations that cement a story’s relation to history and social context — they serve as maps between past creations and future ones, but they also serve as guides for the receiver of a story. The act of categorising a story allows us to set normative boundaries around its process. In some ways, it contributes to a feeling of safety and control — when you commit to experiencing the story, you are doing so with an awareness of the boundaries it will not cross. In shifting genres, Gehraiyaan steps out of the normative boundaries we as viewers find ourselves building around it in the first half. The result is jarring, with many critics going as far as to say that in shifting genres, the story becomes 'unbelievable'.

And yet, in terms of plot, one could quite reasonably argue that nothing that happens in the story is unbelievable. Two people decide to cheat on their partners, things become complicated, the man tries to kill the woman, in defending herself she ends up killing him instead, and because she is affluent and privileged in South Asia, she is able to get away with it.

Perhaps, what we’re calling ‘unbelievable’ is actually a reluctance on our part to extend belief. As viewers, we commit to the story believing that certain things just cannot happen within it — and when they do, we’re left feeling cheated and betrayed, but also deeply unsettled. To entirely dismiss the utility of evoking that sense of betrayal and discomfort, however, is also misguided. Because life too, often leaves us feeling similarly cheated and betrayed, twisting in ways that we cannot consent to at the outset.

That said, perhaps the shift could have happened sooner in the story. That might have resulted in the last 30 minutes not feeling rushed and under executed. And yet, despite that rush to wrap up the loose ends, as the story comes to a close, you’re left with an immense heaviness. In some ways, that can be credited to Padukone’s career defining performance — her eyes hooded with trauma, pensive even when she smiles. Padukone manages to make her character an open wound, and in doing so gives us all the room to step in to that pain and ask questions of our own trauma. But her acting is powerfully complemented by the way the film is shot. Alisha’s anxiety takes on a visceral manifestation, it becomes a visual experience. The camera closes in on all the small tics — frenzied, manic. We watch her diminish herself and the space she occupies, and those visuals are constantly juxtaposed with luscious shots of crashing waves, of an endless expanse of open water; deep, turbulent. Batra weaves metaphors and implications with poetic urgency.

While Gehraiyaan is a film brimming with tender nuance, it doesn’t shy away from doing things that are just not done. It might leave you feeling unsettled, but it might also leave you in conversation with the parts of yourself that closely hold on to ideas of what can and cannot be done. Either way, it is definitely worth the watch.