In his last feature Kapoor & Sons, director Shakun Batra told the story of a family whose delicate bond is further tested when secrets begin to unravel during an unplanned reunion. The film was a surprise hit, with critics heaping praise on Batra's deft handling of a nuanced storyline, and presenting a dysfunctional family in a way Bollywood had never seen before.
In Gehraiyaan, Batra's latest feature coming five years after Kapoor & Sons, family is still the crux of the story. While promotional clips make the film appear as though it's a relationship drama centred around two couples with an illicit romance between two people in the party, it is so much more than that.
The infidelity storyline is established swiftly early on, in the form of Deepika Padukone's Alisha, who falls for her cousin's fiance, Zain, played by Siddhant Chaturvedi.
While on a weekend getaway in the idyllic coastal town of Alibaug, Alisha, a yoga instructor who wants more from her life than her present situation, connects intimately with Zain, a charming chief executive dabbling in the high stakes real estate business. Zain, a go-getter, urges Alisha to live in the moment. And once they begin to bond over their troubled childhoods, sparks fly.
The pair soon continue their relationship beyond Alibaug, with their respective partners - Alisha's struggling writer boyfriend Karan (Dhairya Karwa) and Zain's fiancee Tia (Ananya Panday) – blissfully unaware of their growing attraction.
But in the real world, where investors need to be charmed and rents paid, Alisha and Zain's newfound spark is soon tested. Zain, whose fortunes are tied to Tia's family, struggles to severe the relationship. He asks for time, something all men in Alisha's life seem to have promised her but never actually delivered.
Padukone, one of the biggest stars in India, delivers a powerful performance in Gehraiyaan. She gives Alisha the right emotional heft she needs as a conflicted woman, torn between memories of her mother's tragic death, her aspirations to be more than a yoga instructor, and the growing realisation that all the men in her life have let her down, including her father. Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah essays the father, Mr Khanna, in a short but emotionally touching role.
Chaturvedi, who won awards for his debut 2019 film Gully Boy, is great too as Zain, the suave, aspiring real estate mogul who might be biting off more than he can chew. Caught between his big ambitions and his attraction for Alisha, Zain is forced to make difficult choices, one of which takes Gehraiyaan's final act into totally unexpected territory.
Both Panday and Karwa give able supporting roles, with another notable performance from the acclaimed actor Rajat Kapoor, who plays Zain's business partner Sameer.
The film's title translates to "depths" in Hindi and Batra, who also shares co-writing credits, throws his characters to such a mental abyss that you're left wondering throughout the film how they will ever get out. In fact, some eventually don't.
Gehraiyaan succeeds on so many levels, not just by demanding your empathy with each character's conflicting emotions, but also by setting those very emotions on a roller coaster and then making you want to jump along for the ride.
Gehraiyaan is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from February 11