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Gurgaon: Shanker Raman’s nihilistic film noir is the perfect primer for the lurid Love Hostel

Post Credits Scene: Director Shanker Raman's underseen film noir has a smash-the-patriarchy spirit that has only grown in relevance since its release.

Pankaj Tripathi in a still from Gurgaon.

Basically the only thing that a movie needs to do to effectively foreshadow murder is to find a way of gently introducing that idea in the first act, either through dialogue, or, if the movie is feeling especially bold, by actually showing an on-screen death. You know, Chekhov’s gun… This is precisely the due diligence that director Shakun Batra neglected to do before having one of his two protagonists attempt to kill the other in his recent film Gehraiyaan. The twist, as many including me have pointed out, felt out of place in a movie that had thus far remained a tonally consistent relationship drama.

Gehraiyaan, in its final act, turned into what one viewer hilariously described on Twitter as ‘ameeron ka Crime Patrol’. Although Batra would probably still insist that it’s a ‘domestic noir’.

Either way, it is the latest in a new wave of mainstream Hindi noir movies that began around a decade-and-a-half ago, and has been dominated by directors such as Sriram Raghavan, Anurag Kashyap and Navdeep Singh. None of these films, unfortunately, ever quite broke out. In fact, there was a tier two to this resurgence in the genre’s popularity—a batch that was watched by even fewer people—that included films such as BA Pass, Monsoon Shootout, and the one that we’ve all gathered here to discuss: Gurgaon.

Released in 2016 with next to no buzz, the film was notable for many reasons. Perhaps most pertinently, it featured one of the earliest starring performances by the now-omnipresent Pankaj Tripathi, who, by the way, made the objectively bold (and frankly quite hilarious) choice to whisper his way through the entire movie. And second, it introduced the world to the talents of director Shanker Raman, whose reputation as a particularly militant nihilist will only be cemented by Love Hostel, his quietly brilliant and potentially explosive second feature that I’m not yet allowed to talk about, but can probably reveal is an excellent companion piece to his first.

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It shares with Gurgaon not just an actor (Akshay Oberoi), and language (Haryanvi), but also themes such as patriarchy, parenthood, and predestination. Murder and bloodshed is sown into the very fabric of Raman’s movies.

As if to illustrate the point that I was trying to make about foreshadowing, Gurgaon opens with a shot of a car being pulled out of a lake, as a wry voiceover muses about mankind’s propensity for animalistic disorder in the background. We haven’t yet met a single character, but we know already that before the credits roll, someone important will die. Imagine my surprise when I realised that Raman isn’t the kind of filmmaker who likes to hold himself back. When he teases death, he means it.

Set against the backdrop of major infrastructural upheaval that leads to bureaucratic corruption and corporate crime—like Chinatown—Gurgaon adheres to the conventions of film noir. It also features mostly masculine characters trapped in a cycle of their own morally dubious decisions, haunted by sins of the past, and terrified by the mere idea of what the future holds. “Jaan de denge, jamin na denge,” a character says in the movie, in what has to be the most Gurgaon sentence ever uttered, besides, of course, “Bro, Cyber Hub mein parking full hai.”

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But what makes Gurgaon a standout entry in the pantheon of Hindi neo-noir is its fascination with upending genre tropes—Raman dangles the carrot of progressiveness in front of the audience’s eyes, but in a bit of a genius move, cruelly yanks it away at the last moment, almost mocking you for believing, even for a moment, that these characters are capable of decency.

This is a black-hearted movie that is unafraid to push against the boundaries of good taste. It leads you to believe that it has a ‘smash the patriarchy’ spirit—it probably does, and in that regard, it’s idealistic—but it’s also a realist. Essentially, Gurgaon is about an emasculated man who decides that the only way to restore his battered pride is to remove the woman who is in his way. And in this movie, the woman in question happens to be his sister.

Clearly affected by past crimes—but in no way remorseful of them—Pankaj Tripathi’s Kehri Singh adopts a baby girl after a baba tells him that it will turn his fortunes around. It does, and so, Kehri Singh goes from being a lowly landowner to a real estate baron. He overcompensates by naming his business after his adopted daughter Preet, and makes her his sole inheritor. This leaves his biological son—his first born child, Nikki–extremely bitter. After blowing Rs 1 crore on a bad bet and finding himself in neck-deep trouble with a loan shark, Nikki hatches a plan to kidnap Preet in an ill-conceived shakedown scheme directed at his dad—it would be his revenge for everything that they’ve put him through, as well as an easy way to make a quick buck.

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Raman establishes the antagonistic father-son relationship in Nikki’s first scene, as he gets whacked in the back for misbehaving with Preet. Later, when Nikki finds himself in trouble, his father’s first question to him is, “Chhori ko cheda toh nahi tu, bin pooche,” which translates to, “Did you touch a girl without her consent?” By including these asides, Raman isn’t really emphasising Kehri Singh’s progressive personality—we already know that he’s a particularly regressive man—but instead, he is sneakily encouraging you to concoct your own conclusion to this story.

All conventional wisdom would point to a resolution that involves Preet escaping from her brother’s clutches, getting back at him for what he has done to her, and perhaps putting her family in the rearview mirror as she hightails it out of G-Town. Preet flying the nest, by the way, was an eventuality that had been cleverly hinted at the beginning of the movie. And for a while, it seems like this is exactly what’s going to happen. Until it doesn’t. Preet dies, Nikki dies, and their parents are reduced to empty shells of their past selves.

Each person got what was coming to them—this is the morality of Raman’s films—except Preet, who didn’t deserve to die. So, why did she? By killing her, is the film trying to suggest that collateral damage is a non-negotiable truth when striving for social change? Or is it implying that social change, as a concept, is a foolish pipe-dream to begin with? This is the signature cynicism that Raman brings to both his movies; each of which individually is more powerful than a dozen Bollywood happy endings combined.

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: 24-02-2022 at 08:22:09 am
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