In his latest feature, filmmaker Shakun Batra (best known for his work on Kapoor and Sons) has teamed up with Dharma Productions and Amazon Prime Video for the controversial new film Gehraiyaan.
Based on the trailer alone, I was expecting a scandalous film about infidelity—perhaps even a modernized take on Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, the 2006 Dharma film about two married people who fall in love with each other.
Instead, I was surprised by the intricate ecosystem of characters and emotions constructed by Batra within the film’s 2 hours and 28 minutes run time. With the added creative freedom of releasing through a streaming service, Gehraiyaan is ambitious in its undertaking of a variety of sensitive and challenging topics.
I took so much more from this film than I ever could have anticipated from the trailer.
Gehraiyaan goes so much deeper than infidelity and sex, but somehow that’s all I saw when scrolling through peoples’ impressions of the film on Twitter. While infidelity is a big theme in the film, the movie is more about how we cope with brittle fragments of information from our childhood, how we forgive others and how we struggle to forgive ourselves. It’s the kind of film that sticks with you long after you finish watching it.
The film features a constellation of characters anchored by Alisha Khanna, played by Deepika Padukone, a 30-year-old yoga instructor who is trying to build a yoga app. The movie opens with bleak flashbacks to a tense childhood for Alisha—her family just moved to rural Nasik and it seems that her mother is struggling with the transition. Throughout the film, we learn that Alisha has cultivated a deep-seated resentment towards her father for making them move in the first place.
Alisha lives with her boyfriend and childhood best friend Karan, a struggling writer who quit a boring but fruitful job in marketing to write a novel—causing Alisha to teach extra yoga classes to make ends meet. Alisha and Karan are a couple strained by their own ambitions and appear to remain together more out of habit, than anything else.
Enter Tia (played by Ananya Pandey), who is Alisha’s first cousin. Despite growing up together, Tia is far wealthier than her cousin. When they reunite after years of estrangement, we meet the charming Zain, Tia’s fiancee, played by Siddhant Chaturvedi.
Zain takes an immediate interest in Alisha and they quickly find themselves immersed in a passionate affair. Lust is certainly part of it, but what ties the two characters together is the skeletons in their closet.
Both have trauma from their childhood, but reckon with it in vastly different ways.
While Alisha seems paralyzed by the idea of ending up like her mother, Zain is determined to act out of self-interest, doing whatever it takes not to end up like his abusive father (even if that means leaving his mother to start his own business).
The film takes the audience along for the whirlwind romance, but as Alisha and Zain’s relationship grows deeper, the obstacles of bringing their relationship out of the shadows put a considerable strain on both characters.
The tone of the film takes a sharp turn in the second half, and we see a darker side of the core characters. Most notably, though, Gehraiyaan shows how traumatic experiences from childhood can fundamentally inform and affect decision-making as an adult.
Alisha is visibly weighed down by the loss of her mother—the pain, confusion and anger expressed with a nuance that I’ve never seen in a Hindi film before. In order to dissect what she wants to do in her adult relationships, Alisha has no choice but to reckon with her past, with grief, loss and her mental illness.
In Padukone’s portrayal of anxiety and depression, I saw parts of myself. I saw a woman fighting through her circumstances, trying to grapple with her own agency. Her performance stuck with me for days after I watched the film.
My favourite scene in the film is between Alisha and her estranged father, embodied effortlessly by Naseeruddin Shah. Alisha is finally able to vocalize the painful emotions we’ve seen glimpses of throughout the film, and releases some of the contempt she held for her father her entire life. It’s a jarring conversation, beautifully directed and performed.
Not without its pitfalls, Gehraiyaan left some relationships and subplots undercooked. I wanted to learn more about Zain’s backstory, and explore the sibling dynamic between Alisha and Tia.
However, after the release date criticism of the film had little to do with the content but more to do with Padukone’s body.
People took to social media to slam Padukone for the montage of intimate scenes in the film, for showing too much skin and for agreeing to do such a film despite being married. The misogyny was overwhelming, but not at all surprising.
It’s funny to me that after watching a movie that provides so much (wait for it) depth, the audience fixated on a 10-minute montage scene in the first half of the film. It’s rich coming from avid Bollywood critics, too, considering that so much of the content Bollywood produces is fixated on the hypersexualization of women’s bodies without their consent.
We’ve all heard the common criticisms of our favorite Bollywood films: the guy chases and teases the girl and even when she clearly expresses that she isn’t interested, he persists anyway. Bordering on harassment, we’ve been conditioned to romanticize the chase, even when a man fails to respect a woman’s autonomy and agency over her emotions and her body.
This film doesn’t fall into the same tropes. In fact, Gehraiyaan is speculated to be one of the first Bollywood films to recruit an intimacy director to choreograph intimate scenes. Intimacy directors aim to show intimacy in a more nuanced way and ensure the safety and consent of actors in a scene.
From what I saw, this translated on screen. The intimate scenes in Gehraiyaan were consensual and mutually pleasurable, which we don’t see often, especially in Bollywood. They acted as a tool to demonstrate the closeness of Alisha and Zain as the film progressed. It’s disappointing to see such a powerful film reduced down to sex, even in spite of the fact that the scenes included were refreshingly tender and playful portrayals of intimacy.
It makes me wonder, how does Bollywood want sex to be portrayed on screen? Why is it the one thing that so many people fixated on, in a movie that has so much more to offer?
Perhaps to some, sex on screen is only acceptable when women are objectified and when audiences don’t get to see women experience pleasure.
Ultimately though, I found Gehraiyaan to be a brave, boundary breaking film. With Deepika Padukone at the helm, I hope this film opens doors for more complex storytelling in Bollywood. I hope it gives the industry the courage to invest in films about messy families, unpredictable characters and with honest, gripping depictions of mental illness.
More stories about women traversing through life, sifting through what has happened to them and finding ways to move forward. The audience deserves it.
We’re ready for something deeper.
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