Gehraiyaan movie review: Deepika Padukone is all kinds of breathtaking in a page-turner of a film

Gehraiyaan has an enigmatic air from its opening scene, and gradually takes on an additional layer of unrelenting foreboding

Anna MM Vetticad February 11, 2022 10:06:52 IST

4/5

Language: Hindi-English 

Simmering beneath the calm exteriors of the characters in Gehraiyaan (Depths) are a brimful of painful memories, heartbreaking secrets, soul-crushing worries and stress. 

The film itself is very much like the people in it: placid and still on the surface, below which lies a volcano bubbling and boiling with miseries and mysteries.

Gehraiyaan is the third feature collaboration between producer Karan Johar, director Shakun Batra and writer Ayesha Devitre Dhillon. In terms of quality output, theirs has been one of the most significant team-ups of the past decade in Hindi cinema. Like their earlier two joint ventures, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012) and Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) (2016), Gehraiyaan too is a minimalist film marked by a restrained pitch and a believable, realistic plot. 

Gehraiyaan movie review Deepika Padukone is all kinds of breathtaking in a pageturner of a film

Siddhant Chaturvedi and Deepika Padukone in Gehraiyaan

Deepika Padukone in Gehraiyaan plays Alisha, a yoga instructor who is developing an app to take this exercise form to the masses. She is at a crossroads both on the professional and personal front when she meets her cousin Tia (Ananya Panday) after a gap of several years. 

The economic disparity between the two is evident from the start, as is their fondness for each other and the fact that Alisha has had a difficult past. Tia’s fiance Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi) is a wealthy, flashy real-estate entrepreneur, while Alisha’s boyfriend Karan (Dhairya Karwa) is struggling to finish writing his first book.  

Even this basic information is revealed in tiny increments, laying the foundation for a narrative in which every turn brings with it a new revelation about one of the characters and a new discovery about the human condition.

The writers and director, together with a first-rate technical team, craft a film that is as much noir thriller as relationship drama and so many things in between. In terms of style and tone, Gehraiyaan is unusual for Hindi cinema, harking back to Reema Kagti’s Taalash with Aamir Khan, Rani Mukerji and Kareena Kapoor and to some extent, Batra’s own Kapoor & Sons

Gehraiyaan’s main theme has been Batra’s industry senior Anurag Kashyap’s preoccupation for two decades: the possibility or even inevitability that events will spiral out of control once a single lie is told, a single morally questionable step taken. 

The difference between the bulk of Kashyap’s body of work so far and Batra’s Gehraiyaan lies in the reality that no character in Gehraiyaan is a gangster or hardened criminal or an overtly conscienceless soul. These are ‘normal’ folk, People Like Us so to speak. While the actions of a couple of them arise from an ambiguous moral compass, at least one individual in this ensemble is pushed towards the vicinity of crime by a fatal combination of their own dishonest conduct in the personal sphere and the manipulations of an individual close to them. Each one is likely to offer their desperation and lack of choice as both explanation and justification for their deeds, whereas the uncomfortable truth is that at every point, they did have a choice. 

Gehraiyaan movie review Deepika Padukone is all kinds of breathtaking in a pageturner of a film

A still from Gehraiyaan

Gehraiyaan is not constructed like a conventional thriller, but the events in the storyline press forward with an urgency that makes it impossible to look away.

The writers (Devitre Dhillon, Batra, Sumit Roy and Yash Sahai) and editor Nitesh Bhatia have imbued their plot with a tempo and tenor that makes it the cinematic equivalent of an unputdownable book.

Padukone is all kinds of breathtaking in the role of Alisha, a troubled woman whose frustration with her situation leads her down a path of recklessness that, on the face of it, is not in her nature. Or is it? Watching Alisha’s elastic body stretched out and contorted in yogic poses is an experience in itself, and also a metaphor for Padukone’s acting: she makes depth look effortless.

Siddhant Chaturvedi, who was memorable and unmissable in Gully Boy although it was pivoted around Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, here gets to explore the entire expanse of a screenplay. As Zain, he matches Padukone’s casual brilliance with his own. 

The surprise in this ensemble is Ananya Panday who brings a gravitas to Tia’s confusion and innocence that makes you wonder why she chose to debut with the hollow gloss of Student of the Year 2.  

Each supporting actor has been well chosen. Rajat Kapoor, playing Zain’s business partner Jitesh, brings a delicate balance to his character’s sliminess blended with amorality and a not-an-entirely-bad-guy bearing that is uniquely his own.

Of the characterisation, the only one who left me with questions is Zain. The manner in which he unravels as circumstances go out of hand is completely credible, but I cannot wrap my head around his behaviour in his introductory scene. Considering what we are told in detail about his past and present, it is hard to understand why he would reach out and grab a glaring risk, one that – irrespective of the angle from which you look at it – was bound to ruin him. This is calculated self-destruction from a man who is not otherwise painted as reckless. Why?

Except for a couple of stilted dialogues towards the end that seem right out of Reader’s Digest’s Quotable Quotes section (“But maybe if we let go of the past, it will let go of us too” – uff!) for the most part these characters speak like real people do. 

Gehraiyaan movie review Deepika Padukone is all kinds of breathtaking in a pageturner of a film

Siddhant Chaturvedi and Deepika Padukone in Gehraiyaan

Identity has been an intrinsic part of Batra’s filmography so far. In Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, his heroine was a Goan Christian (Kareena Kapoor) who was not caricatured as her community has been – ad nauseam – in an earlier era of Hindi cinema. Kapoor & Sons was about a Punjabi Hindu family in Conoor in Tamil Nadu. When I watched that film I assumed there were  Tamilians in the background who were visually indistinguishable from the north Indian lead characters due to a lack of stereotyping – whatever Batra and Devitre Dhillon’s intent may have been, some viewers interpreted this differently, not as indistinguishability but as a lack of cultural specifics and an erasure of the local people.

In Gehraiyaan, they have clearly given considerable thought to this matter and written a bunch of urban Indian characters whose religious and ethnic identity cannot be pinpointed with absolute certainty from their first names, homes, speech, facial features or attire. While this may not necessarily be an accurate reflection of human society, it serves a purpose in the grim socio-political context in which Gehraiyaan is being released, in an India where every word uttered by an individual is mercilessly judged on the basis of their religion, caste and regional origins. A human being’s morality is not determined by any of these factors, the film seems to say. Considering the dismal real-life scenario we now inhabit, this seemingly minor messaging is poignant. 

Gehraiyaan has an enigmatic air from its opening scene, and gradually takes on an additional layer of unrelenting foreboding. The atmosphere and transition owe much, in equal measure, to the clear-eyed writing, Batra’s astute direction, OAFF and Savera’s stunning background score, and cinematographer Kaushal Shah who has somehow managed to create a colour film with a black and white feel. 

Like the ocean that often dominates the screen in Gehraiyaan, at every moment in time this film gives off a vibe that it is holding back as much as it lets on. If a film could be described as a pageturner, this one is it. 

Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars) 

Gehraiyaan is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial 

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