Monday, August 7, 2017

REVIEW 515: GURGAON


Release date:
August 4, 2017
Director:
Shanker Raman
Cast:



Language:
Akshay Oberoi, Pankaj Tripathi, Ragini Khanna, Aamir Bashir, Shalini Vatsa, Ashish Verma, Arjun Singh Faujdar, Yogi Singha, Anna Ador, Srinivas Sunderrajan
Hindi / Haryanvi


An air of foreboding hangs heavy over Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon, the story of a family bent under the weight of years of suppressed anger, bitterness, even guilt. The unease is almost tangible when young Preet lands in the city after an education abroad. I should not have come back, she tells her friend Sophie at one point.

Preet’s father Kehri Singh, who heads a real-estate behemoth, is thrilled at her return. All his paternal warmth is reserved for his daughter while he cold shoulders her elder male siblings, including his son Nikki Singh whose arrogance camouflages a yearning for his father’s approval.

You sense Nikki’s resentment towards his sister from their very first scene together. Something has gone awry here. The arrangement of figures in this carefully constructed family portrait is confusing. Deeply conservative Haryana has one of the worst child sex ratios in India, the result of rampant female foeticide and infanticide. Not that the rest of the world is innocent of patriarchy, but Haryana’s stats are particularly shameful. A daughter here is viewed as such a huge liability that preventing her birth is considered a routine option. In a society such as this, something is clearly askew in the Singh home which offers no other evidence of being progressive, yet it is Preet who studied abroad, not her brothers; it is she whose name the business bears, and not as a hollow token of fondness either; it is Preet who Kehri sees as a natural inheritor of his business; it is her degree that he is confident will take it to new heights. 


As layer upon layer of the story is peeled away, Raman reveals Kehri’s secret that has culminated in the tensions simmering in his household. We see then that the Singhs are in fact a metaphor for Gurgaon, a city resting on destroyed ecologies and clashing cultures, where dramatic changes have not been accompanied by gender and cultural sensitisation within the education system, where an appearance of liberalism masks deep-rooted conservatism.

Nothing exemplifies this better than Nikki’s quandary over Sophie. He clearly feels a genuine liking for this lively, friendly foreigner, but has no idea how to express such emotions. He knows how to show affection to his mother, to begrudge his sister her place in their father’s plans, to be violent with the woman he hires for sex, but tenderness… how is he to deal with that?

Could he discuss this with his boy band without denting the macho image he feels driven to project? Who then can he speak to? His distant father? His forever anxious mother? The sister he hates? In the absence of an outlet, he hits out at whoever comes his way, and he broods.


Much like urban Gurgaon, Kehri’s family did not naturally come into being, but was artificially assembled like a well-strategised business model. In this household, a daughter is allocated a non-traditional role because ‘equality’ is a convenience, for the moment at least, not a conviction. She has freedom not because it is her right, but because she has been identified as a ghar ki Lakshmi and not a panauti, those being the only two labels available to female offspring in Kehri’s worldview.

Gurgaon is a film of Dunkirk-like silences more than conversations. The war here is not one of naval destroyers, tanks and fighter jets, nor between countries. It is raging all the same, as sure as any that was ever officially declared: a civilisational clash, a battle between young and old, old inhabitants and new, patriarchy and feminism, mindless traditionalism and free thinking.


Manoj Yadav’s lyrics for the song running alongside the end credits evoke images from the Mahabharat, one of the subcontinent’s greatest epics and now a synonym for the greatest battles ever fought. Most outsiders do not know this, but Gurgaon is named after the Mahabharat’s Guru Dronacharya, “gur” being short for “guru” and “gaon” meaning “village”. Ergo, this is “the village of the guru”. The title, then, is as much a literal reference to the city as a comment on its many contemporary social and cultural conflicts though sans the voice of wisdom, the Lord Krishna that Draupadi seeks but cannot find in the closing musical number.


Cinematographer Shanker Raman – who was responsible for the meticulously crafted visuals of Kashmir in Harud (2012), which he also co-wrote – makes a first-rate debut as a director with Gurgaon. His narrative style and the uncluttered writing (by Raman with Sourabh Ratnu, Vipin Bhatti and Yogi Singha), are both geared towards making a point with the least words possible.

If you have visited this busy metropolis to the south of Delhi, you will know that while on the one hand it is teeming with people and vehicles, on the other, vast stretches of the place can be intimidatingly deserted. Vivek Shah manages to catch the multiple facets of Gurgaon’s split personality through his camera, though with an emphasis on the latter. Each character in the film is alone with themselves and looking out on to a world that seems far removed from where they stand. Nowhere does this work better than in capturing Nikki’s sense of isolation. It is not that the film is indulgent towards him – it is not – but it takes us to a place where we can see why such a creature might emerge from this cauldron of contradictions and confusion.


The atmospherics generated by Shah’s cinematography and the unsettling music by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar, serve to build up a feeling of dread from the opening shot.



Crucial to the success of Raman’s storytelling is the casting. The good-looking Akshay Oberoi plays the seemingly glacial Nikki. The fake self-assurance he conveys here is a contrast to his character’s confident innocence in 2016’s Laal Rang, making him an actor to watch out for.

As Preet in Gurgaon, TV star Ragini Khanna is virtually unrecognisable minus the layers of Hindi-soap-opera-mandated makeup. It has been six years since her film debut in the indifferent comedy Teen Thay Bhai (TTB). Preet is a far cry from Khanna’s vivacious character on the teleserial Sasural Genda Phool, and gives her the space to display her versatility in a film that is more deserving of her talent than TTB was.

Aamir Bashir – who, by the way, directed Harud – delivers a stand-out performance in a small but notable part in Gurgaon. He plays my favourite character in the film.

While each member of the ensemble cast does a fine job, the most distinctive act in Gurgaon comes from Pankaj Tripathi playing Kehri in Don Corleone-like fashion, the godfather of a crumbling family and an expanding empire. The grating voice, protruding jaw and stoic demeanour he brings to this role, so different from the measured dancerliness of Rangeela in this year’s Anaarkali of Aarah, are ample reminders of this man’s chameleon-like skills. In fact, with a hint of prosthetics around the chin, he would be a perfect choice to play the lead in a Bollywood biopic of Marlon Brando, in the unlikely event of such a film being made.

But I digress… Haryana has inspired several Bollywood films in recent years, some celebratory (Sultan, Dangal), some reflecting depressing realities (Aurangzeb, NH10, Laal Rang, G Kutta Se). Gurgaon falls into the latter category. It looks beyond the glitzy malls and swanky condominiums of this emerging Maximum City, to serve as a cautionary tale about unthinking urbanisation and the unseen worlds within our world. Like the city that is its subject, cloaking its turmoil with its gloss, Gurgaon’s pace and tone too are deceptive. The film is a slow burn but make no mistake about it: the explosion is coming.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
107 minutes 31 seconds 

Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurgaon_(film) and JAR Pictures    


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