A brooding crime thriller in which a kidnapping exposes the avarice, sibling jealousy, and murderous past that plague a property mogul’s clan, “Gurgaon” is another entry into the school of designer genre films from India that first drew festival attention through Anurag Kashyap’s prolific output. First-time director Shanker Raman, obviously a fan of Kashyap, shares the latter’s fascination with psychotic human behavior, but leaves tension on a low simmer while barely scratching the surface of characters’ vile motives. What’s more interesting is his insight into how extreme gender inequality is in Indian society. The film’s moody noir sheen may help it travel beyond the domestic market, where it stands small chance against mainstream entertainment.
Raman was an experienced DP and wrote the feature screenplays for Indian films “Autumn” and “Frozen,” both non-mainstream family dramas with political nuance. For his directorial debut, he aspires to grander themes, opening with a portentous title sequence that pontificates on the predatory temperament of even civilized man, and how his violation of nature’s laws will have consequences. Although the film’s generalized condemnation of corrupt developers and their threat to the ecosystem offer some social context for the central family feud, the dramatic arc is too small to soar to epic heights.
The titular Gurgaon is a district in the northern Indian state of Haryana, one of the most economically developed regions in South Asia. Property magnet Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathy, masterly) welcomes his adopted daughter Preet (Ragini Khanna, radiant) home from architectural studies in the U.S. His eldest son Nikki (Akshay Oberoi) is considerably less cordial, openly insulting her for being “picked from a rubbish heap.”
Like any pampered scion of a self-made man, Nikki is desperate to prove himself to his dad, yet never lives up to the high expectations. His big idea of opening an upmarket gym in one of the family’s rural lots gets the thumbs down because Kehri is saving the land for Preet to design a premium condominium complex that will give the backwater location a modern makeover.
To blow off steam, Nikki borrows 10 million rupees from a bookie to bet on a horse, only to lose it all. With the help of his wussy younger brother Chintu, he hatches a devious scheme that not only can ease his financial woes, but also hurt his father in the worst way. Not surprisingly, nothing goes according to plan, and one crime begets many others.
The premise has some parallels with Kashyap’s “Ugly,” in that human cruelty is revealed to be bottomless, and violence is almost a knee-jerk reaction. Unfortunately, also like “Ugly,” the plot runs amok, featuring too many sidekicks, like the two malcontent henchmen Nikki hires, plus Kehri’s brother-in-law Bhupi and the governor who’s backing the township redevelopment, to name but a few. As if unsure where these characters fit into the greater picture, Raman keeps them on the dramatic sideline, waiting to assume pivotal roles that never materialize.
What gives the yarn its emotional intensity is Nikki’s rabid hatred of Preet. His resentment at being spurned in favor of a daughter must be understood within the context of India’s deeply patriarchal traditions, as a kind of emasculation. Even more unsettling is the eventual revelation of why Kehri dotes on a girl he has no blood ties with — reasons that are far from progressive or kind.
Raman could have mounted more suspense when uncovering Kehri’s past, or furnished the character’s superstition and karmic view with deeper psychological shadings. Instead, the director opts for a more conventional genre exercise that culminates in a sepia-toned montage of Kehri’s ruthless rags-to-riches path, in an obvious emulation of “The Godfather.” Maybe it’s the distancing long shots, or the melodramatic score, but the sequence doesn’t attain the desired tragic grandeur of Coppola, or even Kashyap’s “Gangs of Wasseypur.” Other attempts at symbolism, such as a hunting scene that alludes to the prologue’s statement on the laws of the jungle, are contrived and gratuitous. While the film is spattered with deadly assaults and bloodshed, the violence is not so graphic or stylized as to be voyeuristic, and thankfully, the finale packs quite a punch.
Tripathy delivers a low-key but sinister presence as the kingpin who keeps his cards close to his chest, his savage gaze boring holes into people’s minds even as his face remains inscrutable. Swarthily handsome Oberoi oozes bad-boy sexiness, injecting physical potency into Nikki’s loose-canon behavior. As Nikki’s trophy girlfriend Sophia, gorgeous Gujarati-speaking Belarusian actress Anna Ardor serves as a constant reminder of how entitled brats like him belittle and abuse women.
It’s not clear whether Raman’s background as a DP influences the cinematography, but Vivek Shah’s lensing is a mellow and sublime dance of light and shadows in stylish but far-from-cozy interiors. Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor’s thoughtful score comprises mostly ambient music, interspersed with songs composed and sung with heart-rending pathos by Cyli Kharre.