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‘Gehraiyaan’ Review: Deepika Padukone Stars in Bollywood Romance that Falls Short of True Love

Superstar Deepika Padukone leads a commendable cast in an intimate film that can’t handle its own explosive turns.



Gehraiyaan” (or “Depths”) brings an uncommon naturalism to the Bollywood domestic drama, even if it buckles under the weight of its eventual melodramatic turns. Director Shakun Batra, who helmed the critically acclaimed “Kapoor & Sons,” approaches his story of infidelity with a light filmmaking touch. This grants megastar Deepika Padukone the room to create something more emotionally complex than the Hindi mainstream — with its modern penchant for nationalistic bombast — has afforded her in recent years. The Prime Video release, produced by Bollywood juggernauts Dharma Productions and Viacom 18, is commendable both for what it is and what it isn’t, standing in sharp contrast to the usually operatic output of Hindi studios, while aligning itself with the aesthetics of India’s streaming revolution, with its relatively grounded realism (albeit within the constraints of increasing censorship and self-censorship).

After a childhood prologue that paints the broad picture of a crumbling family, the film checks in on a thirtysomething Alisha (Padukone) as she struggles to stay afloat. The yoga app she’s trying to pioneer remains glitchy, and her long-term boyfriend Karan (Dhairya Karwa) is a struggling author yet to publish. They’re in a rut, they occasionally snap at one another, and the finances of their cramped Mumbai apartment fall entirely on Alisha’s shoulders. However, she finds temporary respite when her rich and easygoing cousin Tia (Ananya Panday) — her and Karan’s childhood bestie — returns from L.A. and invites them to set sail on a fancy yacht.

There are topics that both Alisha and Tia would rather dance around than discuss, mostly regarding their parents. In addition to laying the groundwork for family secrets to emerge, the cousins’ reunion also introduces another major character, Tia’s charismatic boyfriend Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi). An outsider to their well-established group, Zain immediately and shamelessly begins flirting with Alisha, which soon builds to a romantic affair. However, the four characters’ personal and financial entanglements with each other makes keeping a lid on things an increasingly complicated prospect.

The inciting adultery begins rather soon into the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, leaving room for the story to travel in a few unexpected directions (for better and for worse). However, the quick arrival of this plot point is the result of a commendable balancing act from both Batra and Padukone. The swiftness of its arrival matches the way Alisha and Zain get swept up in their affair, but it’s a short path tread in carefully calculated steps. Batra’s measured, isolated portraits of each character soon give way to shots where Alisha and Zain enter each other’s orbit — briefly, but noticeably — igniting immediate sparks. Each time Alisha and Karan put on a contented front, Padukone’s suffocation is subtle yet palpable, granting Alisha permission to at least consider Zain’s advances, even though she initially plays them off as harmless banter. However, the closer they get, both physically and emotionally, the more she wrestles with her unhappiness, and the more she’s tempted to give in.

Padukone and Chaturvedi share a chemistry that sings, especially during escapist montages of their love affair. That dynamic is held back only by conservative cinematic norms that have slowly been forced upon Indian streamers; with few scenes approaching on-screen sex (and only a handful of kisses to be found, though more than the average Bollywood production), the actors are often tasked with radiating sensuality from a distance, but they’re more than up to the task, steeping even their most fleeting interactions in palpable sexual tension and physical intimacy. All four lead actors create a sense of comfort on screen, jabbing at each other in snappy, conversational Hinglish in a way that makes their collective hangouts feel casual and inviting. This, in turn, helps the mere glances between Alisha and Zain ramp up the tension, as their affair threatens to upset this newfound camaraderie.

In contrast to the friend group’s naturalism, Alisha’s estranged father hovers silently and forebodingly in the story’s margins, played by legendary thespian Naseeruddin Shah, who brings a self-afflicted theatricality. His presence, while only occasional, similarly threatens to upset the story’s status quo, by bringing the weight of Alisha’s past crashing down on her fragile present. Like Padukone, Shah’s performance reveals itself to harbor a complexity beyond the character’s prescribed “type,” and his all-too-brief appearance is a wonderful highlight. Shah’s “Monsoon Wedding” co-star Rajat Kapoor also adds a delightful touch in a supporting role as Zain’s business partner. The harassment allegations against Kapoor do make his appearance in the film somewhat uneasy, but his character is, fittingly, a ruthless bastard, and the pressure he puts on Zain similarly threatens the bubble he and Alisha have created.

This tug-of-war is further embodied by the film’s stylistic flourishes, including fleeting flashbacks of familial traumas that dislodge Alisha from her self-constructed bliss. Kabeer Kathpalia and Savera Mehta’s heavy musical score, during the film’s more thoughtful and introspective moments, clashes similarly with the upbeat electronic songs they compose (sung by Lothika Jha), which accompany the sweeping montages. However, the numerous transitional shots of crashing waves don’t quite work as intended. While much of the film unfolds at sea or on the beaches of Alibaug, it is first and foremost a tale of people running in place, unable to escape their own stifling emotional malaise. These images of water in motion establish ambience at best, rather than reflecting the characters’ inertia or complementing their lingering unease, as their affair fails to provide them with enough escape velocity to leave their old selves behind.

Once Zain and Alisha’s respective pressures finally catch up with them, the film struggles to reconcile them tonally. Its story, of people stuck in repetitive emotional cycles (cemented further through its familial revelations), becomes ironically trapped in its own form of limbo. Instead of leaning into the rigorous drama it sets up, it falls back on characters stating its underlying themes over and over again, as the story hopscotches its way through dramatic twists that, while explosive on paper, rob the film of its preceding nuance.

“Gehraiyaan” seldom earns its melodramatic turns. However, the buildup to them proves to be dynamic enough, emotionally charged enough, and above all, honest enough in its approach to infidelity and flawed human relationships that the film remains worthwhile.

Grade: B-

“Gehraiyaan” will be available to stream worldwide on Amazon Prime starting Friday, February 11.

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