Despite being set in widely varied worlds, a parallel can be drawn from Tia and Alisha’s relationship in Gehraiyaan to that of Rahul and Arjun in Shakun Batra’s previous directorial Kapoor & Sons.
“But what about us, Alisha?” Ananya Panday‘s Tia asks Deepika Padukone‘s character in the climax of Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan. When her sister extends an olive branch to her, Alisha’s startled expression, with traces of epiphany, declares that Gehraiyaan was never a love triangle that it was teased as. It was always a film on sibling rivalry and reconciliation.
Not just the trailer, but even the film never deep-dives into the tension between Tia and Alisha. There’s always a cold current, that simmers but never flares up — at least not before the film ends. But that doesn’t allude to the film’s disinterest in exploring the taut sisterhood. It only reflects the audience’s bias in witnessing the the combustible dynamics of a love triangle, than the icy equation between two sisters.
Hindi cinema has never fallen short of the love-triangle fodder — especially between two siblings and their common love interest. From Saajan and Dillagi [two brothers fall for the same girl] to Mujhse Dosti Karoge, common love interest acting as bone of contention between two siblings is a hopelessly predictable yet eternally seductive trope. But Gehraiyaan is not interested in that simplistic setup.
The core of Shakun Batra’s story resides less in the friction between Tia and Alisha, and more in the absence of tangible love in Zain’s relationship with both women.
When Zain [Siddhant Chaturvedi] and Alisha kick off their affair, it’s hasty and empty. It’s deliberately designed so, as if the writers reduced it to a line on paper: “And then they had wild and torrent sex.” The chemistry is more clinical than palpable, intentionally so, because the film never intends to put their love on a pedestal. Just like the loopy, lifeless music, the lovemaking scenes are merely a device to convey the hollowness of their relationship. The shots of sea waves intercutting those moments are also just a tool to aid the illusion.
Even Zain’s courtship with Tia is very transparently transactional. Even before the grimy details of that surface, the inconsequential nature of their relationship is evident in Tia’s boredom and need to force conversations through fillers. “He’s never home. I’m thinking of joining a pottery class” and “I asked them to replace burrata cheese with goat cheese” aren’t just signature Gen-Z statements to make the film sound more relevant to that demographic dividend. It’s a symptom of the glaring lack of emotional wealth in Tia’s life, that is devoid of any kind of short-term relationship. She is not exactly pally with her sister, has a distant fiancé, and a friend in Karan, who is too busy finishing his first novel to give time to any relation [more on that later].
Despite being set in widely varied worlds, a parallel can be drawn from Tia and Alisha’s relationship to that of Rahul [Fawad Khan] and Arjun [Sidharth Malhotra] in Batra’s previous directorial Kapoor & Sons . Having grown up in the same family with modest means, the two siblings now belong to different economical classes. Arjun doesn’t want Rahul to book him on an expensive flight back to India at the start of that film, just like Alisha tells Karan that a yacht from Mumbai to Alibaug would be so expensive for them, only for Tia and Zain to assure them later, “Don’t worry. It’s on us.”
There’s also the injected conflict of romantic love in the Kapoor & Sons sibling relationship. Tia [Alia Bhatt], who is dating Arjun, develops a crush on Arjun without the knowledge that they’re brothers. She kisses him in the moment on what she considers a date, and hides that event from Arjun for the longest time. When she finally confesses, Arjun storms back to confront Rahul. But as a narrative twist reveals, Rahul is a closeted homosexual, and has little interest in women. [This is masked by both the masterstroke of casting the heavenly handsome Fawad Khan, and by naming him Rahul, naam toh suna hoga from Shakun’s mentor Karan Johar’s dreamy heterosexual romances]. Clearly no conflict here, at least from Rahul’s end. Similarly, the conflict between Gehraiyaan‘s Tia and Alisha is never about the latter sleeping with the former’s fiancé. Zain’s role is that of not even a catalyst, but only a narrative distraction.
A rather meta, yet far more interesting, conflict between the two siblings in both films is to have more say in how the story shapes up. Both Rahul and Arjun are writers struggling to find an end to their respective stories. Having earned a foot in the door with a published novel, Rahul constantly offers to help his younger brother with feedback for his long-gestating novel. But Arjun is reluctant since in his head, he has already accused Rahul of stealing the climax of his previous story. We also see Rahul toying with Arjun’s draft and hiding it once Rahul’s back home. But as the climax reveals, Arjun was only trying to help Rahul with a climax suggestion. It turns out to be a happy ending for Arjun as his draft is greenlit by the publisher.
Similarly in Gehraiyaan, Karan is an author, which is interesting at so many levels. He does not only share the name with producer Karan Johar but also enjoys a meta reference slid in one of Kapoor & Sons scenes. When Arjun introduces Tia to Rahul, she calls him Karan [because she remembers him as the sibling who keeps fighting, like from Rakesh Roshan’s film Karan Arjun]. Rahul corrects her, but Arjun sneakily adds, “Rahul-Karan, same thing.” So Karan, the author in Gehraiyaan, insists he finish his draft before sharing it with his girlfriend Alisha for feedback. But he ends up sharing the incomplete version with his friend and her sister Tia, much to Alicia’s chagrin. Both the women are vying for inclusion in the writing process. But they come on the same page only in the climax when Karan has found his happy ending in a new relationship.
This conflict actually makes more sense than the previous two of materialistic disparity and romantic rivalry. It’s evident in Karan [masquerading as Shakun] exclaiming at Tia about Zain’s new deal, “140, what? crore?” There may be beach houses, yachts, and luxury hotel rooms but the spaces also symbolise the lofty isolation that the elite often grapple with. For instance in the final scene, the troubled thoughts in Tia and Alisha’s heads ring much louder than the clinks of wine glasses in the background.
Casting Siddhant Chaturvedi and Ananya Panday after their infamous exchange of “Jahan humare sapne poore hote hain, inka struggle shuru hota hai” also helps. Zain’s relentless ambition is only fleetingly glorified, and meets a deadly end with all the walls of his life closing in on him. The film mocks at how he fails to maintain relationships with both women, while also struggling to make his business stay afloat. It’s with the same ridicule as Preity Zinta calling Saif Ali Khan a “thoughtful jerk” in Raj & DK’s Happy Ending for not confessing to his girlfriend that he’s cheating on her because she would “feel bad.”
But Batra’s disdain for economic privilege and lack of interest in revering romance were underlined in his directorial debut itself. Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu [with an extra ‘k’ in the second ‘Ek’] had Imran Khan [as Rahul Kapoor again] reluctantly and gingerly chew away food as his mom [Ratna Pathak Shah] reminded him, “Chew your food 32 times.” The film even subverted the conventional posh-people dining table sequence by positioning it as Rahul’s breakaway moment, when he gets rid of the cutlery and starts eating with his hands.
And even there, love was not glorified as the panacea. Kareena Kapoor Khan’s character Riana Braganza, styled and dialled up as the manic pixie dream girl, is never reduced to that trope in the story. Rahul’s attraction for her allows him to take control of his own narrative, but she never reciprocates his feelings. She moves away when he tries to kiss her. Love here revitalises Rahul’s life but it never gets fulfilled. That is yet another remark on how he had to let go of his privilege by not only distancing himself from his rich family, but also challenging his inherent entitlement of a rich spoilt brat.
Shakun Batra is reputed as a taskmaster on set. But he’s also a very demanding storyteller. He likes to glide over surface-level conflicts like love and money, and encourage both his characters and the audience to take that plunge. He is the Manisha Koirala character in the Dibakar Banerjee Lust Stories segment who quickly takes an out of a love triangle by transferring the tension she has with her husband and her lover to one that then runs high between them.
But amid all the complexities, he urges us to embrace a fairly simple funda: Tie the loose ends before you unravel further. Waves are just the symptoms; the pressure lies far deeper.
Gehraiyaan is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.