First-time director Shanker Raman delivers a solid thriller in GURGAON, starring Akshay Oberoi, Ragini Khanna, and Pankaj Thipathi
Family can be a tricky thing. The bonds forged between blood relations are often tenuous and fraught with jealousy and distrust. You can't choose the people with whom you make those bonds, and as a result, those people aren't always the easiest to trust. In first-time director Shanker Raman's Gurgaon, the bonds of family are further complicated by a shameful past and secrets that put everyone at risk. In this case, all that blood guarantees is that blood will flow for those who seek to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs.
When prodigal daughter Preet (Ragini Khanna) returns to her father's estate in Gurgaon from college in Europe, not everyone is happy to see her. While her mother and especially her father Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), her older brother Nikki (Akshay Oberoi) is quick to remind her that as an adopted child, she's not really part of the family, and she's intruding on a space that he believes belongs to him.
When father decides to give Preet a shot at launching her architecture career in his new real estate development instead of funding Nikki's gym, the brother is none to happy and his anger turns to malice as he becomes determined to take what he believes is his rightful place as his father's business scion. A bad bet leaves Nikki in the debt of a local bookie to the tune of ten million rupees, but he takes the lemons and makes bloody lemonade when he hatches a plan to fund his dream and get rid his obstacles all at once.
Gurgaon fits well with the new breed of Indian thrillers using India's rapid economic expansion as fuel for gritty stories about the bodies on which great cities grow. Last year's Kammatipaadam was another similar story that focused on the lower caste henchmen and their struggle to stay alive and afloat as their homes were plowed under in the name of progress. With Gurgaon we start at the top with real estate tycoon Kehri Singh and his bratty, entitled son and their misadventures in maintaining their prosperity.
Raman's screenplay does a wonderful job of building the world of privilege in which Nikki Signh operates, a world without consequences in which he feels - and for all intents and purposes is - bulletproof. Though Oberoi's Nikki is certainly the catalyst that gets the main thrust of the story rolling, the film is actually very effective as an ensemble piece. I'd be hard pressed to choose a single actor as the lead, though Oberoi is probably the prettiest on screen, because all of the main roles are effectively distinct and well-rounded.
Perhaps the character with the most depth, and the obvious choice for sympathy, is Khanna's Preet. She is a dutiful daughter with no skin the the game that would place her in an adversarial position to Nikki, making her challenges all the more frustrating. She says at one point in the film in which her father is attempting to arrange her marriage that he's never said no to her before, so even though she doesn't want it, she can't imagine saying no to him now. She has everything that Nikki wants, and she wants none of it, which only infuriates her older brother further.
Some of the acting takes getting used to, the character of Oberoi's Nikki is a good example. His constant seething and nihilism in the face of what he sees as defeat at the hands of his father and his sister makes him profoundly unlikable, but I guess that's kind of the point. He is like the lion with a thorn in his paw, constantly aggravated, and the only way to relieve him is to remove the thorn, his sister Preet.
The great Pankaj Tripathi (Gangs of Wasseypur, Omkara) is very effective as the patriarch for whom success has grown boring. Though both characters remain fairly steady from the opening shot, as the film builds, it becomes clear how each has influenced the other, and how they have failed as father and son to each other.
It is interesting to note the way the film stays almost exclusively among the upper classes to tell its story. Apart from Preet, who has been away for years at school, and her mother, every person in a position of privilege is a slimy, unsympathetic worm. The only point at which the film dips into the working class world is when Nikki hires a slum-dwelling debt collector to put his nefarious plan in motion. Even then, as this goon performs reprehensible acts at Nikki's behest, he comes out as one of the noblest characters in the whole film. Perhaps a bit of a dramatic exagerration, but very telling of the film's worldview.
Gurgaon is one of a thousand cities in India that is primed for massive economic expansion, and even though it is blood that makes the grass grow under these success stories, we only see the ribbon cutting on TV. Shanker Raman's film is an interesting look at the backdoor dealing and violence that keeps the money flowing among the upper classes. Perhaps not quite as ambitious as Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai which tackles similar growing pains, Gurgaon is nevertheless a very effective thriller that should find an audience outside of India for those adventurous enough to give it a shot.