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Gehraiyaan: Why in the world did Shakun Batra drown his own film with that plot twist?

Post Credits Scene: In one of the most remarkable derailments in recent memory, Shakun Batra's Gehraiyaan --starring Deepika Padukone, Siddhant Chaturvedi and Ananya Panday -- pivots from being an intelligent relationship drama into an altogether different film.

Deepika Padukone and Siddhant Chaturvedi in a still from Shakun Batra's Gehraiyaan. (Photo: Amazon Prime Video)

If you’re wondering why they slowly pivoted away from describing Gehraiyaan as a ‘domestic noir’ in the days and weeks leading up to release, you’re not alone. A fantastic trailer, some Instagram-friendly songs, and a navel-gazing sadcore aesthetic had wiped away any memory of those words and the slightly sinister undertones that they carried. As the release date neared, the mood shifted. The marketing began telling us that Gehraiyaan is an intense relationship drama instead; a raw look at millennial love.

Which it is, for sure. But those of you that have now seen it—and I would insist that those who haven’t stop reading immediately—would know that director Shakun Batra had one wild trick up his sleeve. As it turns out, Gehraiyaan isn’t a domestic noir at all. It’s both those things, but separately.

And now, it’s clear why nobody uttered a word about the insane tangent that the film goes on deep, deep in its third act. It is a twist that is so out of left field that it breaks the movie in ways so brutal, so cruel, that it never recovers.

As Deepika Padukone’s Alisha accompanies Siddhant Chaturvedi’s Zain for the 20th time to his fancy yacht, the assumption is that they will hash out their differences. Alisha and Zain have entered into an illicit relationship that has spiralled out of control, overwhelming them in such an all-consuming way that they can’t think of anything else. Zain’s professional life is on the verge of implosion, and Alisha has recently discovered that she is pregnant with his child. He promises to make things right; hence, the trip to the yacht. The choppy waters of the Arabian Sea are an external representation of their torrid interiority, and their metaphorical ‘homelessness’. It’s intense stuff, solidly directed by Batra.

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But something goes very, very wrong on that boat. Zain, with a hint of terror in his eyes, offers Alisha a drink. A Prateek Kuhad-esque song plays in the background; deceptively calming. Having sensed that something is amiss, Alisha pretends to be sea-sick and asks to be taken back to shore.

And this is the moment when the movie jumps the shark. Zain snaps, and tries to hurl her off the yacht, into the sea. Alisha fights back, and in the ensuing scuffle, Zain slips, hits his head on the side of the boat, and drowns to his death.

It is a plot development so inconsistent with the world that the film had established that it obliterates an actual twist that arrives mere minutes later, when Alisha’s cousin Tia tells her that the man she thought was her father isn’t her father at all. It also brings to mind other destructive twists like Blofeld’s declaration in Spectre that he’s James Bond’s long-lost brother, or, when it was revealed in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer that the kindly man we’d developed a soft corner for was, in fact, a child molester.

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The reason why none of these twists worked isn’t because plot twists are inherently a bad thing. They’re not. They didn’t work because they weren’t earned. The movies hadn’t done the groundwork; they hadn’t led us to believe that something like this could happen, so when it did, it’s impossible to feel anything other than momentary whiplash.

There is a moment earlier in the film in which Zain shoves Tia off his yacht, but that is quickly revealed to be a twisted fantasy sequence. If anything, it sets you up to expect more of that later. So when the scuffle with Alisha was happening, I was convinced that Zain was fantasising about killing her, as well. Because while most people have, at some point in their lives, thought about murdering someone, very few of them have actually gone ahead and done it.

Even if Zain absolutely had to die in the film, particularly in this manner, why couldn’t they have shown us how he’d arrived at this point of no return? It would certainly have been a very difficult decision for him, to kill someone he loves, and observing him as he came to that decision would have only generated empathy. Not to mention the Hitchcockian suspense it would have created, watching him lead the helpless Alisha to her doom. But no, instead we get a quick WhatsApp reveal mere seconds before he attempts to poison her. By pushing the narrative in this direction, the movie signals that nothing is out of the realm of possibility anymore.

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Gehraiyaan, up till that point, had gone out of its way to tell a story grounded not just in emotional reality, but logistical reality. To get to Alibaug, the characters had to take a yacht, which had a proper crew. This had been established. But after Zain dies, Alisha operates the yacht, which she miraculously sails back to shore without ramming it into the Gateway of India, or worse, into some rich industrialist’s birthday present for his girlfriend.

Introducing a murder plot, and a subsequent police investigation, and a subplot about corporate corruption is not what Gehraiyaan was supposed to do. Not because it’s something that I didn’t want, but because it’s something that the movie thought it could pull off, but clearly couldn’t.

All this happens, essentially, in the last 30 minutes. Which means that it is too late to make things right. So, the script abandons all pretence of wanting to return to a recognisable reality, and instead decides to plough on, packing in as many twists as it can into the remaining half-hour, including one that arrives literally a second before the screen cuts to black. The implications of this final twist, by the way, are mind-boggling. But that can of worms demands to be opened in an article of its own.

Such is the sourness of this tonal, stylistic and thematic shift that it is impossible to rinse the taste out of your mouth. Which is unfortunate, because Gehraiyaan was, for nearly two hours, an uncommonly well-made film—the first act was such as astute dissection of the millennial experience that for a moment, it reminded me of other quarter-life-crisis movies such as The Worst Person in the World and The Souvenir. That’s high praise.

But because of its sudden transformation from a character-driven mood piece into a plot-driven crime thriller, the themes that the movie was so keenly handling—inherited trauma, found family, the cyclical nature of fate—are essentially drowned under the same waves that Batra keeps cutting to.

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In the end, you’re left wondering if the first couple of acts are good enough for you excuse the third, or if the post-murder stuff is so bad that it undermines everything that came before it. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

First published on: 14-02-2022 at 08:08:16 am
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