"Play anything by Bon Jovi," says a kid who's just kidnapped another kid, a musician, for the heck of it. This scene unfolds somewhere in the arid badlands of Gurgaon, Delhi's most infamous suburb, and the helpless musician - knowing that nobody is likely to hear him scream - picks up his guitar and begins to strum. "I can't seem to face up through the facts," he sings in thickly accented English. "I'm tense and I'm nervous and I can't relax." The kidnapped boys, real estate brats with rage to spare, appreciate what they assume is an "original song," but what is actually 'Psycho Killer' by The Talking Heads.
Director Shanker Raman's geographically named debut film is a dry and relentless noir story, one that holds many a telling and pointed detail. More than anything, the film provides a compelling look at a culture born out of toxic masculinity.
This is a culture that guns down tollbooth operators who offer Coffee Bite instead of a few coins of change. Raman's directorial approach is markedly less extreme, the treatment measured and gradual and the writing sparse. At least to begin with. The first half hour of Gurgaon unspools with a nearly devastating matter of factness, aided considerably by cinematographer Vivek Shah's mastery of shadows and textures. The film plays out brutal and sadistic, meant to make the viewer squirm.
We meet the Singhs. The patriarch Kehri, a man who made his millions in real estate, presides over both the neighbourhood rotary club and his family with a glass in his hand, drinking with overcompensatory regularity. His beloved daughter, Preet, has returned from abroad with a degree in architecture and he wants her to shape the projects that will cement his legacy. His good-for-nothing son, Nikki, seethes, as their father thinks only of his sister. Kehri's wife looks on.
Bets are made, bets are lost, heads are on the line and a kidnapping is concocted. So far so good - so Fargo so good, even - but the film loses its observational vantage point once the plot kicks in, and things begin to get increasingly circuitous and contrived. I refuse to give anything away, but the problem with Guragon lies in its specifics: the characters are best (and most disturbing) when we are getting to know them because they could be anybody; once the particulars are in place and they come into their own, they feel overwritten.
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The film does well with its actors - Pankaj Tripathi, chewing on his words with tipsy, lazy deliberation, is excellent as Kehri, while Akshay Oberoi, as Nikki, brings a wounded iciness even to the way he says his own name - and, more importantly, is grounded in intricate details: the way WWF commentary can be heard in the lobby of a brothel, the way Preet is always confident except in the way she hesitates and speaks haltingly in front of her French friend; the way a family sits around a table, brought together by the scrutiny of the presents they've been given.
Gurgaon manages to create a suffocating mood. The film feels difficult but solid. Then come the plot-points and the blood-soaked backstories, and - like the real life Gurgaon - it starts, generically enough, to resemble yet another product. The murkiness is spelt out and the motivations underlined, alas, while the background score tries too hard to imitate The Social Network. This is still a strong effort, but could have been much finer without overtly emphasising the characters morals and repeated demonstrations to show us how bad everyone is. The director should have listened more closely to that Talking Heads song - the song with the crackerjack bassline - that I mentioned at the start of this piece. As the line goes: "Say something once, why say it again?"