Spoiler alert: This post talks about the film Gehraiyaan & references several key plot points. If you haven’t seen the film & plan to, please do not read further.
Trigger warnings: Childhood neglect, self-harm, abuse, infidelity.
Yes, I said that. I know today is Valentine’s Day & this film has been promoted as a romantic drama. But it’s not. It works pretty great as food for thought for Galentine’s Day though. Galentine’s Day? That delightful day first heard of on ‘Parks & Recreation’, celebrating female friendships & love on 13 February, the day before the big V. Okay, the film actually dropped on Prime Video on 11 February but most of us caught it over the weekend. I’ll admit I came to it with all the pessimism of the pandemic, the resignation of too many overmarketed, nepotism-fueled trash pieces. I am also worn out with Valentine’s Day (getting torn between capitalist agenda & political agenda, needing something pure in a hopeless world, receiving an OTT public proposal on this day to mask ongoing violent abuse) but that’s for another story. I live-tweeted my bile thoughts throughout watching the film, which if you have the stomach for a raw/fresh emotional journey, you can check out here.
But I don’t regret powering through the film (and it had to be a sheer grit-my-teeth powering through at times). The film pays off & continues to do so, hours, perhaps days later. But it takes its time. I saw a tweet suggesting that this story might have worked better as a limited series & I’m inclined to agree. A series would have allowed each character’s story to be fleshed out better instead of hastily jammed in, colliding with others. It also would have allowed the nuance in the backstories & their present to breathe. Still, we did get a story like this out of mainstream Bollywood & that is saying something.
Gehraiyaan is a heavy film to sit through. It offers reprieve/release for a few minutes at the end before spinning off another dangling question mark. Bold choice that, in these times of 6 second attention spans to keep the audiences waiting 150 minutes for that breather break & take it away just as quickly. Why is it is so heavy? Because it feels like hours, even days of therapy crammed into that 150 minutes. I was lucky to watch it alone and stretched out over an evening. I still had to keep taking breaks to catch my breath, pause to survive the onslaught of unwelcome trauma flashbacks, talk myself down from panic ledges. The movie goes to all those places; it really does go there.
It seems like a mean trick to drop this movie just before Valentine’s Day, promote it with soft-focus shots & scenes of Deepika & Siddhant Chaturvedi. You’d be totally forgiven for thinking this would be a mushfest. The first hour or so is also crammed with lots of sexy time vibes, artfully shot, from bikini/six-pack-ab bodies in expensive lounge/beachwear to closeups of fists clenching bedsheets & montages of lips colliding, hips meeting & rolling over floors. Maybe a bit sexier than the older romcoms but we are in the 2020s, a sex-starved pandemic & the alternate reality of OTT platforms where desi sanskars are given the finger. And with a name like ‘Gehraiyaan’, even the most hardbitten of us nod & say, “Trying to be poetic in romcom cliche”. So it’s a slap in the face when shit gets real (and it gets so real, you even stop rolling your eyes at the numerous ‘fuck’s thrown in to convey cool).
Where to start? Right in the middle of the mess. Deepika is a high-functioning hot Indian mess – from the alcoholic, absent dad mirrored in the deadbeat, unemployed (“writing a book but nothing to show for it”) boyfriend to the unprocessed suicide of mother showing up in self-sabotage. She teaches yoga, is trying to get a yoga app off the ground. But serenity aside, she tolerates a boyfriend who won’t do a scrap of work in the house or outside, won’t show her what he’s writing, is dismissive of what she does & sponges off her. She also blunders into a torrid affair that has all the hallmarks of sleaze, given it’s with her cousin’s boyfriend and in her own home when boyfriend is away. She’s seduced by the rich, care-free life he seems to live, a fact that doesn’t get addressed as the movie prefers to stick to assigning noble ideals to all its women. As Alisha, she looks perennially hot in that makeup free, dishevelled way that Westerners call ‘soccer mom’ except she’s just a Mumbaiker. We all look like that, thanks to the weather, the lack of time/space & the strain of survival. Deepika has definitely evolved since Om Shanti Om and still she falls short. She’s been given a script revolving around her & a camera that makes love to her endless legs & deep dimples. Yet, I find myself wondering how she feels zero remorse for cheating on her charmless boyfriend, no shame for the sleaziness of her affair, no inner conflict over obviously being paid (in investment instead of hard cash) for sex, no confusion over an unexpected pregnancy, no grief over the miscarriage. Yes, I know high-functioning types often have uncracked veneers. But this movie promises to go deep & shows us enough of her private moments. Nada, nothing except looking dishevelled-hot.
This really, really bothers me because Alisha’s emotions are the crux of the film. An entire generation of Indians are cracking & crashing under the weight of a culture of omerta when it comes to family & relationships. We’re carrying the burden of families who treat children variously as emotional support animals, punching bags, trophies, emotional shields against each other and still somehow get to dictate our intimate choices all our lives. We get a Western education but with desi standards of unrealistic perfection & ROI-centric career paths. We consume pop culture bites of modern feminism but are morally policed by our security guards, neighbors, colleagues & even random strangers. We speak fluent Hollywoodese (including saying ‘fuck’ at the end of every sentence, I suppose) in a culture of absolute silence about our familial traumas. We navigate MeToo realities, modern therapy terms like ‘boundaries’, capitalist greed-is-good goals while struggling through careers full of sethji nepotism, sexist/casteist/regionalist biases, middleclass modesty & murderously toxic masculinity. There’s rich fodder here for the twisted inner lives we each live, even in claustrophobic Mumbai flats & tiny, poorly lit bathrooms. The movie shows none of it, preferring instead to showcase their beautiful leading lady in aesthetic ways.
Speaking of murderously toxic masculinity (hehehe, if you’ve seen the film, you know), I was also annoyed by Siddhant’s character, Zain. At first, I couldn’t shake off his Dharavicha MC Sher hangover from Gully Boy so it was odd to see him cast as a flashy playboy on a yacht. Then his sweet sincere looks were just too at odds with the caddish finance brodude he’s essaying. The smug pick-up lines, the talking down to his trophy girlfriend (who it turns out is funding his swish lifestyle), the blatant predations on her cousin – these should have come off sleazy but didn’t. I’d have REALLY respected the film for showing that. Without these, his double-crossing both women, the constant bait-and-switch with money & the women – these are incongruent rather than the natural character progression. The story did give Zain a trauma-based backstory of a violent father & a mother who defends her husband but feels abandoned when the son leaves. But the story told me instead of showing me. I’ve been close to someone like that and the damage doesn’t translate quite as neatly as that. A man who has been taught to be brutally violent to women embodies it whether he likes it or not. Our generation of men is only just starting to learn that violence = bad & even they are carrying a lifelong history of smashing things & proving their masculinity by assualting people. These are men who’ve grown up learning that there are violent people (men) and victims (women). Like a lot of Indian men, Zain has also received conflicting messages from his mother that he is wrong to defend her but that walking away is abandonment. This almost always translates to mistrust, resentment & hatred towards all women. Zain briefly opens up to Alisha at the start of their torrid affair but he’s never shown resenting her for it (because that’s what a lot of people put in this situation feel – there’s nowhere else to dump the boiling emotions except on the person who seemingly let them out). He switches all too quickly to a completely cardboard cad who has seemingly only ever been out for the money and will even kill for it. Even that transition to what feels safe (risky behaviour, hurting others before one gets hurt by them) isn’t shown very naturally. There’s a baby involved somewhere about which he feels what? We’re never told.
Then there’s Tia, miscast as the perennially annoying Ananya Pandey. To be fair, she’s probably just too young an actress for this role. She’s wide-eyed, clueless Bambi as her leech boyfriend sponges off her family wealth & flirts with her cousin before her eyes. She’s an over-privileged Karen when she inappropriately intrudes into the relationship of her distanced cousin with her deadbeat best friend. She’s a whiny brat when her mother tells her not to blow up her inheritance. In all of these, she makes the people around look bad (gaslighting boyfriend, bitch cousin, money-minded mother) when she’s just a narcissist who demands that other people take care of her. You only notice this at the end, when you are told about her cutting Alisha out of the will & keeping her in the dark about her actual father. There’s nothing Bambi about someone diabolical enough to pull that off. It would have been great to see how knowing about her father’s infidelity & betrayal of the family shaped her own negative choices & personality. How does she feel about Alisha, her childhood best friend, step-sister from her father’s affair as well as girlfriend of her now best friend and (possibly) the woman that her fiance cheats on her with? Solid gold which never gets touched in the movie.
I found myself very unsettled by the main male characters. Between a plastic deadbeat and a diabolical murderer, is that all there is to men? 2010s sensibilities are to assign a ‘trauma’ or ‘mental illness’ reason to every kind of horrible behavior. It feels like men continue to enjoy penis privilege there as well, by hijacking feminism to win woke bro points & the mental health awareness movement to justify their ongoing misdemeanors. Even with its flaws, this movie shows us a glaring difference in the way men & women manifest trauma. Neglected/abused girls grow up to cut themselves, lock themselves into dead-end relationships, carry financial burdens that are not theirs, blunder into bad decisions with long-ranging repercussions on their physical safety & mental health and still keep functioning with shattered psyches. Abused boys grow up to hurt other people, feel entitled to swindle money, to erode relationships, to cheat, to impregnate & ignore, even to kill & walk away with nothing more than a sob story for the next sucker. In sum, women are programmed to continue the abuse inflicted on them with self-harm while men are taught to inflict more abuse on the world around them and blame women for it.
The last ten minutes of the film were the saving grace of all these casting/script gaps. The conversations between Alisha & her dad, Alisha & Tia and the jolt ending – these hint at the amount of work yet to be done. Tia asks if they can start over. I was expecting Alisha to smile that dazzling dimpled smile and say “YES!”. Instead she says she’d like to and sounds like it means she is struggling with it (which is honest). We don’t know how these two will ever work it out since it’ll mean coming clean about the affair & what happened to Zain. Yet, a narcissistic Tia did manage to be honest about her machinations against Alisha’s inheritance & parentage. Does Alisha have the same strength to rise above her trauma? Has Tia actually healed or is this another machination to find out what she may already have suspected – Zain & Alisha’s betrayal of her?
I did like not having answers to these because that’s perfect girltalk fodder. Women have complex inner lives & just as complex relationships with each other. When better to acknowledge that than on Galentine’s Day? I mentioned that I watched the film alone and I’m also spending today, Valentine’s Day alone by choice. There is too much going on inside me that I need time to sit with, in peace, without having to babysit another man (because that’s all I’ve ever known of romantic relationships) or mollycoddle another narcissistic woman (because that’s what a lot of friendships look like to high-functioning women). I am choosing to spend this time with the person who deserves my real love and appreciation – me. Watching this movie, sitting with the rush of feelings & even writing this is my way of doing that. That’s both Galentine’s Day & Valentine’s Day.