Shakun Batra’s Latest, Gehraiyaan Barely Skims the Surface

Movies Reviews Shakun Batra
Shakun Batra’s Latest, Gehraiyaan Barely Skims the Surface

Let me get the cliché out of the way first: For a work titled Gehraiyaan (Depths), this much-anticipated film doesn’t delve much below the surface. Like a pretty skipping stone, it skims across some ostensibly choppy waters, only to submerge with a gentle plop at a distance—leaving me confused and perplexed.

This is Shakun Batra’s third narrative film, after Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu and Kapoor & Sons. Both of these achieved some critical success, especially the latter work, which features a delicious sibling rivalry between Siddharth Malhotra and Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, with Alia Bhatt and an assortment of other actors in the middle of a nuanced look at a dysfunctional family. So, ever since the trailer of Gehraiyaan—featuring Deepika Padukone, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Ananya Panday and Dhairya Karwa—was released, there’s been buzz around the project. Hindi films featuring themes of infidelity and broken relationships such as Silsila, Arth and Masoom—or even Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, for that matter—loom large in fans’ minds. What would Batra bring to this much-trawled subject? Well, dear reader, this is what you get.

Alisha Khanna (Padukone) is a yoga instructor trying to sell an app. She’s dating Karan (Karwa), an advertising copywriter who quit his job to write a book. She’s been estranged from her wealthy cousin Tia (Panday) for many, many years—especially since Tia grew up in the U.S. Turns out, Tia is back in Mumbai. Since Karan, Alisha and Tia are childhood friends, they agree to go on a reunion at the Khanna family beach house in Alibaug. During this trip, Alisha and Karan meet Tia’s fiancé Zain (Chaturvedi), a wannabe real estate mogul.

Tensions simmering under the surface bubble up slowly. Family secrets are hinted at. Why is Alisha also estranged from her father? Cracks in relationships are revealed. Alisha isn’t privy to Karan’s progress on his book (we never find out what he’s writing about), while Zain is discomfited by the financial investments made by Tia’s family in his business, and the emotional baggage that brings along. Within the first 30 minutes of the movie, those simmering tensions overflow.

To no one’s surprise, Alisha and Zain hook up. Then comes a twisted and convoluted plot full of shell companies, evaluation schemes and increasingly messy relationships. Family secrets are revealed. If I say any more, it will be giving things away, but I had guessed the general trajectory of the movie fairly early on. This is the type of film where you get to see how rich and upper-middle class Indians live—or aspire to live—their Instagram-worthy lives, toting yoga mats and outfitted in casual designer wear, silhouetted against gorgeous sunsets as seen from luxury yachts. It’s the type of film where Alisha becomes “Al” and Tia becomes, god-help-us, “T.” (I was just happy no one thought of calling Zain “Zee.”) F-bombs litter the dialogue without rhyme (and forget reason), which made the stilted dialogue sound even more artificial.

Who are these people? Why are they talking like this? I found myself pondering this question more than a few times, because the script didn’t engage me as much as the gorgeous cinematography—all moody shots full of shadows and golden hour reflections. It didn’t help that there were scenes where the sound was off. Is this a dubbed film? My mind wandered further adrift. Then there was a scene, where Alisha and Karan run into each other on the street, that had me literally laughing out loud: It was so obviously CGI, which makes sense given the headache it’d be to have a street shoot with Padukone in Mumbai. By this time I had officially given up on the movie. I just wanted it to end.

Why make Alisha a pill-popping yoga instructor? Nothing against a person getting prescribed Valium to deal with anxiety attacks brought on by childhood trauma, but other than seeing the svelte Padukone in figure-hugging yoga wear, I could not understand her character at all. The whole point of yoga is to try and figure out some kind of internal truth—besides perfecting your downward dog, of course—unless you’re shallow or a hypocrite, which would be perfectly fine, if the script leaned into those traits.

Pretty much all of the characters in Gehraiyaan are flawed, as humans generally are. But given the amount of time the camera lingers on Alisha—bizarrely so in a few scenes—this story clearly centers around her. I found Alisha to be willfully blind of her family’s dynamics and her own shortcomings—which is why when she finds herself in the deep end. I felt no sympathy for her. Neither was I taken in by Padukone’s performance. She looks gorgeous, as always, but I quickly grew tired of her flip flops between dimpled smiles and mouth set firm like a cipher. “Oh my god, find that spine that you’re supposed to be lengthening,” I wanted to yell more than a few times at the screen.

Chaturvedi, who had made an impression on Bollywood fans as a street-savvy rapper in Gully Boy, also disappoints. If you want to be swimming with sharks, you gotta be ruthless and reckless versus someone with a roguish charm. Batra’s lacking abilities directing romance were on full display here, as intimate scenes between Zain and Alisha were a clinical kind of steamy. If these two characters were lusting after each other, it was news to me. The only person who seemed somewhat believable in this whole sordid affair was Panday’s Tia. A seemingly vapid young woman, she ends up being the most thoughtful of the quartet. It’s a small role, but Panday plays it with an effortless ease and gives Tia some character.

The shame of it is that Gehraiyaan’s premise was promising. What happens when you try your best to avoid your past, but then end up making the same mistakes again? It’s a subject I have personally struggled with, which is why I found Gehraiyaan neither here, nor there.

Director: Shakun Batra
Writer: Ayesha DeVitre, Sumit Roy
Starring: Deepika Padukone, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Ananya Panday, Dhairya Karwa
Release Date: February 11, 2021 (Amazon)

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.

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