There’s a subplot in Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan that involves ex-advertising man Karan (Dhairya Karwa) struggling to finish his first novel. As with most writers, even good-intentioned enquiries about his progress drive him up the wall. Yet his girlfriend, Alisha (Deepika Padukone), keeps asking whether he’s almost done, and pushes him to let her read a draft. Neither strikes me as something a person in a long-term relationship with a writer would do—unless that relationship is on the rocks, which theirs is. It’s significant, then, that the first big betrayal is not by Alisha but by Karan, who gives a draft to her cousin Tia (Ananya Panday) for feedback.
By this time, Alisha is in the midst of a flirtation with Tia’s fiancé, Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), founder of a real estate firm. They meet on vacation in Alibaug, sailing there from Mumbai in Zain’s yacht (it’s to impress his clients, he explains, betraying the naivete of the very rich who think supplying context about their toys will make them seem more relatable). There, while Tia and Karan—old friends from college—unwind boisterously, their partners find themselves drawn, instantly, helplessly, to each other.
Back in Mumbai, the two circle each other for a while, then crash into an affair, the artfully slurred vocals on ‘Doobey’ providing the soundtrack for the start of their tryst. Chaturvedi and Padukone are physically well-matched, lithe, tanned and comfortable in their bodies. Once they start spending time together, they realize they both have family trauma in their past. She’s estranged from her father, whom she holds responsible for her mother’s death by suicide when she was young; his father was a violent alcoholic. We can see why they’d gravitate toward each other, and why they’ve fallen out of love with sad sack Karan and chirpy, bland Tia.
There aren't a whole lot of Hindi films on infidelity (a famous one is Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna; he’s producer here), and nearly all are about how cheating will make you miserable. Gehraiyaan is almost instantly miserable, yet it gets right the small acts of deception that support a larger one. Early on, even before they’ve begun the affair, Alisha mutes her texts so her partner won’t notice her phone buzzing. Both lie to Tia about a conversation they had. Soon, the deceptions scale up. He funds her yoga app. Karan proposes marriage.
There’s a lifestyle influencer quality that sticks to the film, with its yoga, its beautifully plated meals, and its guileless rich-person speak (“I specifically asked for Burrata cheese because I know you love it but then they gave me goat’s cheese yaa. I was so fucking… are these your pills?”). They address each other as ‘yaar’ a lot, like the couple in Little Things. Alisha is the ‘struggler’ of the quartet because she knows where the garbage is thrown and couldn’t go to college in the US because her family fell on hard times. Cinematographer Kaushal Shah films everything with a beautiful manicured moodiness, all glinting blues and greys. The frames have the tastefulness of a fashion magazine spread—everything in its right place, but somehow airless.
Batra and Nitesh Bhatia’s cutting is neat and incisive, but this is still a two-and-a-half-hour film. Much of the running time is spent in suspended artful unhappiness, before the film kicks into a higher gear. This surge comes a few beats too late—Alisha and Zain aren’t that interesting a couple to spend so much time with, and Karan and Tia aren’t interesting at all (by contrast, there wasn’t a character in Batra’s last film, Kapoor & Sons, that wasn’t fascinating). I enjoyed the slew of revelations in the final third, and a memorable nasty trick played on the audience. But it did feel like a mood piece had had an existential crisis and turned into a high-stakes drama.
Padukone demonstrates again how, if nothing else, she’s one of the great criers in Hindi film history. Tia finding nothing more illuminating to say than “acchi hai” (it’s nice) after reading Karan’s draft seems to encapsulate the sweet nothingness of her character. Chaturvedi looks increasingly harried, but not much more. Rajat Kapoor supplies a necessary nastiness; they ought to have unleashed him earlier. There are moments that bruise, but Gehraiyaan can’t shake the impression of being Scenes From an Affair for the swish Instagram set.