Director – Ruchi Narain
Cast – Kiara Advani, Gurfateh Singh Pirzada, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Taher Shabbir
A MeToo joke is made five minutes into Guilty, the new Indian original on Netflix; a woman is slut-shamed within 10. Director Ruchi Narain’s film, during its opening act, positively challenges you to stick around. It feels like an assault on woke culture, and in several scenes, pretends like it’s an insensitive cousin to the terribly tone-deaf and shamelessly smug Section 375.
But if you do stick around – and you should – you’ll be treated to the culmination of a two-year experiment. Guilty is the sort of movie Netflix has been trying to perfect ever since it waded into Bollywood; a seamless blend of Western values and desi drama. Like Kapoor & Sons, it comes across as a retroactive attempt by producer Karan Johar to atone for some of his past sins – the most recent of which Netflix was, ahem, guilty of being complicit in.
Watch the Guilty trailer here
Johar’s the only one, for instance, who seems to have noticed Kiara Advani’s talents as an actor. After being largely restricted to playing pushovers, Kiara delivers an absolutely electric performance as the unreliable Nanki, a fiery college student with a fondness for Faiz.
Nanki writes lyrics for a band in which her boyfriend is the lead singer. Together, Nanki and VJ inspire jealousy and admiration among the largely virginal clump of kids that swarms around them like bees. Among one of VJ’s many devotees is a small-town girl named Tanu, played in an Achilles heel of a performance by newcomer Akansha Ranjan Kapoor. After a Valentine’s Day party in which several students witness her coming onto VJ, Tanu accuses him of raping her.
The accusation sends shockwaves inside the college, and exposes systemic injustices and corruption. Fearing a media trial, the authorities try to silence Tanu; her peers wonder if her allegations are even credible. Judgment is passed on her scandalous sense of style; her pursuit of VJ is perceived as an indication of ulterior motives.
Among the film’s many problems – the most aggravating of which is the film’s insistence on beating you over the head with the vast class-divide between VJ and Tanu – is Kapoor’s performance as the young woman. In a film filled with impressively restrained acting, her generic small-town accent and tendency to break into hysterics does a disservice to Narain and her writing partner Kanika Dhillon’s surprisingly empathetic screenplay. For those keeping score at home, this is the second Netflix India original this year in which the same Shakespeare speech is butchered.
But brief dips in the quality of acting aside, Guilty feels genuinely authentic in its depiction of life inside Delhi University, an academic institution that I am a proud product of. When news of Tanu’s accusation first breaks out, one character barges in and announces, in pitch perfect Delhi lingo, “Apne bhai ke saath scene hogaya bro.”
Narain gives the film a Rashomon effect and a Riverdale tone. She plays with perspective and preceptions. A virtuous lawyer conducts interviews with everyone who was present during the Valentine’s Day party at which the incident is alleged to have taken place. His investigation brings to light multiple narratives and contrasting points-of-view, encouraging the viewer to draw their own conclusions and come up with their own theories as to whom to believe.
Narain secludes the lawyer, played by the very assured Taher Shabbir, inside cool and clinical office environments that mirror his personality. Kunal Vijaykar, meanwhile, in one scene is plonked firmly inside his own comfort zone, with a fork and knife in his hands and a plate of food on the table in front of him. But Kiara is the true revelation here. She plays Nanki, a character with her own traumas hidden underneath tattoo ink and torn T-shirts, like a person we’ve all crossed paths with on several occasions in our lives. She’s intimidating yet inviting, alluring yet alienating.
And Guilty is consistently watchable, right up to the gloriously designed end credits sequence and the frankly jaw-dropping title card that it ends with. It might not be as impeccably written as Pink, but it certainly aspires to be as progressive.