Shanker Raman’s first film as director – after stacking up several acclaimed credits as a cinematographer – is a visual treat. That is, if a relentlessly grim King Lear-esque account of an imploding family can be described as such.
Vivek Shah’s outstanding cinematography in Gurgaon conjures up a sepulchral world in blacks, browns and greys. Like Raman’s script, which has been written by the director and three collaborators, Shah’s camera looks hard into the moral void, producing memorable close-ups and frames in the process. The invisibility that cloaks even the daytime is one of many metaphors in a film whose title itself is portentous.
In Raman’s telling, ambition and aspiration have run their course in the metropolis that has come up on land that was only recently covered by farms. Farmer-turned-property developer Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) has a palatial home stuffed with luxurious accessories and expensive paintings, but his favourite spot seems to be his bar. No matter what the time of day, he always mixes himself several drinks at a time and speaks in a low rumble that screams “spent force”.
Some of Kehri’s earlier ambition has passed on to his son Nikki (Akshay Oberoi). While the father once ruthlessly transformed agricultural land into chrome-and-steel townships, Nikki’s concerns are far more modest – all he wants is a gym to pass the time between haunting nightclubs with his posse and to place high-value bets on cricket matches.
Kehri’s real inheritor is his beloved foreign-returned daughter Preet (Ragini Khanna), who he hopes will expand his empire. When Preet is abducted, Kehri is momentarily jolted out of his stupor by his wife (Shalini Vatsa), and he recruits his old associate Bhupi (Aamir Bashir) to track down the kidnapper.
Gurgaon isn’t a mystery – the kidnapper’s identity is revealed early on – but it certainly tries to milk the enigma. Preet’s fate is intertwined not only with Nikki’s present but also Kehri’s past, which is littered with crimes and questionable choices. Preet’s abduction forces the excavation of shallow graves, and every character walks about with dirt on their person.
This visually stunning world, with its brooding underlit frames and looming sense of dread, doesn’t always know what to do with its humans. Gurgaon has at least two striking performances, by Tripathi as the lush patriarch and Oberoi as his resentful son, but other characters struggle to emerge out of the void. At the top of the list of characters who float about trying to be counted is Srinivas Sunderrajan’s guitarist, who gets embroiled in the kidnapping for no conceivable reason.
Relentlessly grim and morbidly obsessed with the idea of punishment for every action big and small, Gurgaon suffers from an overweening emphasis on producing meaning. The characters are suffocated not by the claustrophobia of mutual distrust that Raman wants to create, but by the symbolism with which he weighs down every frame.
Raman’s battle has actually already been won by the title and the setting, but like the deep shadows in which the characters are trapped, he pushes his story towards points of no return. Events get unwieldy as the investigation into Preet’s abduction wears on, raising questions about Kehri Singh’s actual sphere of influence. The unsubtitled dialogue, most of which is in Haryanvi-inflected Hindi, clarifies matters that should best have been left unsaid.
Suggestion, rather than explanation, might have helped Gurgaon wholly fulfill its ambition of being a study of dystopia in a place that is held up as an example of all that is desirable about the market economy. The movie works best in fits and starts, especially when it lets itself by guided by its richly layered atmospherics.
Among the most effective scenes is the one in which Preet is kidnapped from her office. Minutes before Preet is abducted, she is looking at the scale model of a township in her name, which is her father’s gift to her and the bone of contention with her brother. The shadows are gathering around Preet, and one of them will materialise into her kidnapper, but an overhead light is throwing off a warm and inviting glow. It proves to be an illusion, like parts of Gurgaon itself.