By Nandini Ramnath
Celebrated cinematographer Shanker Raman’s debut feature Gurgaon is set in the actual place on the map and a fictional abyss of ambition, corruption and amorality. As befitting a movie helmed by someone who has spent his career peering through a camera lens, Gurgaon is a visually striking neo-noir that explores the gradual destruction of a wealthy property developer’s family.
Blacks and browns abound in the twinned portrayal of the city that is held up as a symbol of all that is new and good about India and the family that has materially benefitted from this hardsell. Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) has a house into which a small neighbourhood can be fitted, but his domestic life is troubled. He is steeped in alcohol and his son Nikki (Akshay Oberoi) is resentful over the perceived favouritism shown to his sister Preet (Ragini Khanna). When Preet is kidnapped, Kehri Singh must finally confront the ghosts of his past actions, some of which are right in his living room. The Jar Pictures production will be released on August 4.
Raman, whose credits as cinematographer and occasional co-writer include Frozen (2007), Peepli Live (2010), Harud (2010) and Patang (2011), said Gurgaon explores both “a physical space and a metaphorical idea”. The Film and Television Institute of India-trained professional told Scroll.in, “I grew up in Delhi, and Gurgaon came up during my growing up years as a full-blown city. It’s a travesty of sorts – an edifice built on a salty foundation so that every time you build on it, there are these fault lines. You can’t fix them because the whole thing will come down.”
Raman wrote a story outline exploring the “sense of greed and moral ambiguity that can never be sustained” a little over three years ago. “I started to look at power relations – my characters experience a sense of alienation, pessimism and moral ambiguity, and they frustrate each other in an attempt to make sense of their lives. You start to wonder, what kind of a man are you?”
Raman chose not to shoot the movie himself, preferring to concentrate on the direction and actors. Instead, he recruited Vivek Shah, who has won acclaim for his work in Bariwali (2000), Khargosh (2009) and Kaphal(2013). Shah, also an FTII graduate, has known Raman for years, and he was initially nervous about handling his old friend’s pet project.
“Shankar was searching for something more than the plot itself – he was seeing Gurgaon as a metaphor, and was talking about the idea in a philosophical manner,” Shah said. “He wanted to take the audience into the space where this was happening. If the audience could identify with the space, then it would work. We all live in Gurgaon, in a way.”
Among the references used to conjure up this space on the screen were the brooding paintings of American artist Edward Hopper. “Given the nature of the story, all the characters have shades of black on their faces,” Shah said. “In a way, they are looking at things through dark filters, and cannot see properly.”
Shah underexposed the film so that the blacks are slightly muddy, which creates a feeling of plasticity as well as keeps up the sense of mystery. One aspect of the lighting was to actually tamp down the luminosity. Gurgaon’s characters merge into the background, as though indistinguishable from the shadows that surround them. The only real spot of colour is a nightclub where Nikki and his posse often spend their time.
“We were a bit on the monochromatic side,” Shah said. “We rarely used pastel shades, if at all, and avoided Indian yellows and greens. That’s because the minute you add strong colours to a frame, the idea of a celebration comes into the picture. There is nothing worth celebrating in the story.”
Although the film is set in what is now known as Gurugram, many locations are actually in Delhi and Faridabad. “We have a Gurgaon everywhere – it’s not only about Gurgaon but about our own willingness to own up to the impact we have had on others,” Raman observed. Kehri Singh’s abode is one of many cavernous farmhouses in Chattarpur in southwest Delhi. In the film, it becomes a symbol of the nouveau riche to which the property magnate has come to belong.
The heart of Gurgaon is a place of darkness, and it had to be steeped in noirish shades. In Raman’s telling, his movie is a thriller, a whodunit as well as a whydunit. He was approached a few years ago by Jar Pictures, founded by Ajay Rai and Alan McAlex, to work on a mainstream project. Having worked with the company on various projects in the past, Raman knew that he would be tackling a low budget film aimed at the widest possible audience but with integrity at its heart.
“All the characters are fighting to achieve an undefined happiness that allows passion and grief to overtake them,” Raman said. “The whole ethos is of free will and modernity, but at what cost?”
The colour palette accordingly eschewed bright colours and pastel shades. Even the flashbacks to the fields on which the concrete symbols of aspiration stand were muted. “It’s a suffocating and claustrophobic space, and there is neither a cold or warm palette,” Raman said.
The Raman-Shah combination greatly helped the filmmaker in pursing his own responsibilities on the sets. “I needed a collaborator, someone who would be a sounding board, who could bring his own style and aesthetic and life into the film,” Raman said. “I have known Vivek since film school. We collaborated on the screenplay, and he was the moral compass of the film.”
Shah, in turn, enjoyed the freedom to create his own version of what Raman describes as a story of “repressed anxiety, alienation and a sense of dislocation”. The tension between “banality and beauty” that Raman strives for is vividly expressed in the film’s unified look.
“What would have been eye candy in another context here shows a certain greed, a sense of coveting something with which you don’t quite know what to do,” Raman said. “A lot of the imagery, the choice of colours, and the locations, comes from that. There is a moral haze in which the characters are hiding, and they are not revealing their true nature because they are afraid of what they have done or will do. We cannot say that this is a safe place to be.”