Kiara Advani’s Guilty is a different sort of film about sexual assault
In a Netflix India film, Guilty, a young songwriter's popular boyfriend is accused of rape by a fellow student at their college, forcing her to consider both versions of the story in order to figure out which one is true. The Kiara Advani film has a lot to say, but as ever, its effectiveness hinges on how the message is delivered.
It's safe to say that actress Kiara Advani is slowly but surely making her mark in Bollywood. If 2019 was her biggest year yet — Lust Stories, the 2018 small screen (but big drama) offering from Netflix bagged a nomination at the International Emmy Awards 2019, while Kabir Singh, where she played actor Shahid Kapoor’s love interest, entered the Rs 300-crore club in no time, and her last outing, Dharma Productions’s Good Newwz, alongside Bollywood heavyweights Kareena Kapoor Khan and Akshay Kumar, accumulated more than Rs 310 crore worldwide — 2020 promises to be just as exciting.
A year after making headlines with Lust Stories — which explores love, lust, sex, and modern relationships from the viewpoint of four Indian women — Kiara Advani is returning to Netflix with her new feature, titled Guilty, produced by filmmaker Karan Johar's company, Dharmatic. The Hindi-language drama, which released on March 6 on Netflix, sees Advani in a whole new grunge avatar. Guilty dives headlong into the #MeToo phenomenon with a story about sexual assault on a college campus in Delhi University. Advani plays the role of a songwriter’s girlfriend in search of the truth after her popular boyfriend is accused of rape. She is inscrutable, even maddening, as she struggles to keep up with the details of the rape.
Rarely have Bollywood films interrogated the aftereffects of sexual trauma; even more rarely have they tackled the topic without eventually sidelining it. But Guilty concentrates its spotlight entirely on the subject and can be tough to watch. Spoiler alert, for viewers who haven’ yet watched Netflix India's new film, Guilty.
Nanki (Kiara Advani) is a sensitive soul with a gift for poetry. Vijay Pratap Singh aka VJ (Gurfateh Singh Pirzada) is the frontman for the Doobydoo Crew, a college rock band; he recruits her to write songs, and they soon become a couple. The son of a prominent politician, VJ is a campus personality with many admirers, among them Tanu (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor), an attention-monger with a reputation for being promiscuous. After a Valentine’s Day concert and several subsequent drinks, Tanu tries to seduce him, and Nanki stomps off. Soon after, Tanu accuses VJ of rape.
This story is told mostly in flashback, as a lawyer, Danish (Taher Shabbir), questions witnesses — friends, bandmates, and passersby. Also by Nanki, who finds herself torn between her boyfriend, who insists the sex was consensual — and a drunken mistake — and his accuser, Tanu, who uses social media to stir up a movement of #MeToo supporters, and inspire news headlines. We soon learn that Danish is VJ’s attorney, the product of his family’s wealth and influence. We also learn that Tanu is on scholarship, and the product of a less privileged social class, so she’s ripe for gaslighting. It’s a volatile situation ready to explode. It’s also a dense, murky swamp, and Danish and Nanki have no choice but to slog through it.
Nanki is mostly loyal to VJ, but she’s still haunted by uncertainty, so she plays an amateur sleuth and starts poking around, possibly putting her hopes for a Rhodes scholarship at risk. She also experiences intense anxiety attacks, for which she takes medication. Meanwhile, Danish wavers between his loyalty to the truth, and the person who’s paying him. By showing multiple points of view on one story, Guilty echoes, somewhat sloppily, Kurosawa’s classic, Rashomon.
Although Guilty attacks rape culture head-on, its borderline-inept storytelling diminishes its effectiveness. Director Ruchi Narain tries to make the film Nanki's story, while also indulging the Rashomon construct; and the result is messy diluted drama. Once the testimonials are exhausted about halfway through, the story finds its footing. But it’s soon lost again as the drama escalates, and Nanki’s anxiety renders her point of view potentially unreliable. It’s further hampered by cruddy dialogue, and a final sequence that has its heart in absolutely the right place, but is staged in such a phoney context, we can’t help but cringe at the blatant artificiality and lack of subtlety.
Guilty hopes to inspire discussion and contempt for the way society addresses and handles a rape — its final segment is a doozy of a finger pointed at social and institutional injustice. Although she’s dating VJ, Kiara Advani’s Nanki is in a mostly neutral corner of the central conflict, willing to give up her relationship to learn the truth, if necessary. The movie might crumble to bits without Advani’s earnest performance. “I’m ready to speak up now, but is anyone ready to listen?” is her character’s earnest third-act plea.
Our take: Netflix India’s original movie, Guilty, makes an assured, progressive, feminist assertion that speaking up is a brave, righteous thing to do. But the screenplay really could have used another re-write or two.
(All photos courtesy Netflix India, and Dharmatic's official Instagram account.)