Sea-green waves gently crash against each other and a yacht; good looking people in beautiful clothes meet each other; our protagonist, a generally flustered but hard-working Alisha meets her cousin’s fiancé, Zain. Alisha and her long-term boyfriend Karan are living through tough times, him having left his advertising job to pursue writing full-time, leaving the job of running the household and taking care of all their finances to her. She is discomposed in life, by her own strained relations with her father, more so by Karan’s lack of success, or for that matter, lack of a novel. And in comes a rich, gorgeous man. We all knew by the trailers what was going to happen. And that happened. Much more happened. And then the movie ended with polarising reactions from its audience, most of it for Zain’s character arc.
Gehraiyaan (2022); Dharma Productions
When we first meet Zain, he is a charming and handsome man, flirting with his fiancé’s cousin from the get-go. Maybe as the audience we can sense something off there, but not Alisha, who craves any sort of affection, maybe more than the passive kind Karan provides her with. She immediately takes to Zain’s allure. Throughout their turbulent affair, their respective partners are oblivious to what is obvious to the audience. In fact, they appear extra-kind to them. Tia, Alisha’s cousin and Zain’s soon-to-be wife, offers to help him out financially. Karan proposes marriage to Alisha on her birthday. But as the film, and their relationship, progresses, Zain’s personality begins to darken, throwing up more red flags and warning signs than Alisha can wilfully ignore. Over the course of the film, he fudges property papers, takes shady loans, and even attempts a murder. Compared to director Shakun Batra’s previous outing, the comparatively mellow and softly progressing family drama, Kapoor and Sons (2016), Gehraiyaan felt a step too fast-paced, too much thrill packed into its runtime. But as much as the audience was taken by surprise with this change in tone, it’s not completely surprising if we view Zain in the context he was actually in, that of being a Sidney Sheldon Male Lead. Or that of Gehraiyaan being a Sidney Sheldon story.
Sheldon’s novels have almost always featured women wronged by birth, accident, bad choices, or any combination of these. These women have often fought hard battles while staying incredibly sexy, akin to what Alisha does in the film. Sheldon’s female leads have often faced crooked men, out to either crush them or take advantage of them, or both. Whenever a half-decent man does come along, he quickly loses the way and wanders into the grey area, through lust or greed, or both. Like almost all of Sheldon’s leads, Zain is an outsider trying to break in. From the little we’re shown about his life, we know he grew up in an abusive household, tried to stand up for his mother to his violent, abusive father, but in the end she wouldn’t leave. He ends his story there, and we don’t see him trying to understand his mother’s rationale, which should have been an early hint for the kind of man he would turn out to be. Zain, attacked by his father, instead leaves home and works his way to Tia, a rich heiress, who then lifts him up further with money. And now he is good to go, finally where he wants to be.
Pick any of Sidney Sheldon’s books, and the trope is echoed. In The Other Side of Midnight, the handsome pilot Larry Douglas is attracted to the charms and power of his boss’ wife, the actress Noelle Page. This leads him to cheating on his simpler wife Catherine. In Rage of Angels, lawyer Adam Warner, grooming for the US Senate office, cheats on his wife Mary Beth with the book’s protagonist Jennifer, and then cheats on her again with Mary Beth, all with the singular vision of his professional advancement. Sheldon’s leads, men and women, were almost always from humble backgrounds, a social stratum that had the world against them from the beginning, but who were hungry enough to make it. Or as we call it, are ‘hustlers’. The men’s grey shades come through at various points in the books, at first relatively harmless, but soon vicious. The women were well-meaning but forced to resort to questionable means in order to look out for themselves. And breaking many hearts along the way. When these men and women come face to face, you can either expect tempestuous passionate sex or orchestrated murders, sometimes both. Zain and Alisha were not far off from this. With flirtations at the first meeting, then dismissed as harmless, they’re soon having passionate sex in hotels and yachts.
[Spoilers after this point]
Much like Sheldon’s books, the male lead soon turns toxic, targeting his viciousness to the female. Zain’s decision to murder his mistress/girlfriend (or attempt to do so) during the pre-climax of the film felt sudden to too many. He wasn’t portrayed as overtly cruel or a bad guy, apart from the fact that he was cheating on his fiancé. However, for the sake of a Dharma film, we’ll pass that. Zain is in fact quite insistent on having a child with Alisha, adamant to give her a good life, even though his own interests were tied to it (of note, he didn’t feel the same for his fiancé Tia, with whom even more of his interests were tied). So, there must have been some real emotion, however fleeting or misplaced. But soon Zain unravels. He keeps delaying breaking off his engagement because of the murky finances his business is caught up in, and thus keeps putting off Alisha, who, rightfully, threatens to expose their secret to her cousin. Like Sheldon’s men, Zain is a ruthless opportunist. He views himself as a self-made man, who disdains his mother’s helplessness and thinks of himself as a messiah who wasn’t allowed to be one. He opens a real estate firm (red flag right here) with an equally wily partner, Jitesh, and uses his fiancé’s money to cushion himself. But he’s also aware of who he is, because unlike Tia, Zain is out in the world everyday dealing with more people like him. He knows that he could stand to lose everything if he slips up, and his calculating nature is almost second skin. At one point in the film, he is put down in humiliation when a business partner says, ‘Boys like you come and go, Zain’. And it’s painful for him to hear this because he knows it’s true. He’s not the first young man who wanted to make something of himself and decided to do whatever it takes, to sleep, or marry his way to the top. For men like Zain, the knowledge that they don’t belong until they do, is a big enough driver to do anything. His relationship to the heiress meant little when he knew that he would be able to pay her back the money, but the question of stature, or ‘fitting in’, remained. Credited as ‘Zain Siddiqui’ on the Wikipedia page of the movie, the character has more than enough factors that might work against him in society, and he needs to ensure that he has manipulated his way to the top. He might not even have any vicious intentions or actions, and continue his life, maybe an affair here or there, but it was important that he settled in the same societal echelons as Tia before he could completely be comfortable being who he was. He couldn’t drop the pretence until he didn’t need to pretend anymore.
Gehraiyaan (2022); Dharma Productions
The men in Sheldon’s books are not all corrupt and cruel, but are driven by their circumstances, of which the author provides plenty of context. While the books generally have a dedicated backstory for each character, the film doesn’t give us much about Zain. We are left to figure it out ourselves. We assume he’s not completely heartless. He is shown to even bond with Alisha over their shared childhood pain, something he is unable to do with the more sheltered Tia. We are led to believe that he is with Tia for the money and access. He seems determined and even confident that he can pay her back and be with Alisha as soon as his business starts looking up. He believes he can attain for himself what Tia was giving him so far. In those few minutes when Zain is struggling to keep his life and business together, one almost feels sorry for him, because we may assume he has struggled to be where he is. Unlike the other three protagonists, Zain was not born into money or privilege. His decision to delay breaking off his engagement wasn’t as much an intention to dump Alisha, as monetary obligation to Tia. He had landed himself in the middle of a murky puddle of his own making. Almost similarly, Sheldon’s men have often aimed higher than was possible for them, too much too soon. Too many women, hotel dinners, expensive wines, one-night stands, and it often crash landed terribly. In The Other Side of Midnight, the Greek tycoon Constantin Demiris finally catches Larry Douglas and his wife’s affair, and twists them further in, leading to their deaths.
In The Best Laid Plans, advertising professional Leslie Stewart meets Oliver Russell, running for the position of Governor. Seeing that he doesn’t have enough money to run a campaign, Leslie donates to it and even runs it for him free of cost, while both become increasingly attracted to each other. But soon, with the eventual climb up the ladder, Oliver marries another woman on a trip to Paris and dumps Leslie, while also attaining his goals of becoming Governor. Sheldon’s men have often been cunning and calculative, and even when not, they ultimately succumb to the side of fate that almost always ends up with the woman getting the bad deal. And Zain seems to be no different. He is not fully cruel but not incapable of being heartlessly fierce - you don’t get to be where he is without being fierce, especially if you were born with the odds stacked against you. And Zain is acutely aware of this, sometimes even using this to his advantage when his fiancé accuses him of cheating on her (Twitter has already had a breakdown over the meta-commentary of this scene, referencing actor Siddhant Chaturvedi’s now-iconic dialogue from Rajeev Masand’s roundtable).
He is ambitious and maybe has a heart, one that might feel something at the prospect of meeting someone whom he seems to feel comfortable with. And for that brief moment you wonder, despite your better judgement, if like in one of the producer’s previous film, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, the two ‘cheaters’ will ride off into the sunset together. But then an offhanded reference to a shell company early on in the film comes back in the form of a secondary plot point, where Zain uses his investment in Alisha’s yoga studio as a shell company for crooked business loans. Her studio shuts down and she starts realising what she has gotten herself into. You are left to consider how much of yours, and Alisha’s, assumptions about Zain were true. Zain, like a true Sidney Sheldon Male Lead, emerges as a manipulative faker who takes advantage of the women attracted to him, to further his own ambitions and cover his tracks. Maybe he lets himself be led on by momentary attractions, maybe he knows she will not be a threat to him. Maybe he is briefly invested in a future with Alisha and their baby. Alisha’s emotional fragility draws her to the charming Zain, as is the case with any number of Sheldon’s women, broken and hurt, but inexplicably saved in time (usually in the first act, like with the film) by a hunky, well-meaning man. In the series Made in Heaven, Jim Sarbh (a Sidney Sheldon man himself) tells his mistress Kalki Koechlin, “I will finance your clothing line, and it will be a proper business deal." Kalki is a social outcast after a bad divorce. Her insecurity and lack of belief in herself draws her to a man who very clearly has no intentions of leaving his wife, but who she believes will give her respect because it comes in the form of financial investment in her business. For him, it’s really nothing except indulgence. We wonder if Zain was a younger Jim Sarbh.
Men in Sidney Sheldon books have mostly been rather suspect. We don’t know until the very end if any one of them cosying up with the female lead may come back to stab her in the back, or front. Even though we are given to understand their motivations, we cannot measure the extent to which they could go to get what they set out for. Zain’s ambitions take over when he attempts to kill Alisha, something that the film might not have indicated overtly, but let us judge for ourselves. Because at the end of day, Zain is a hustler, he is the only one of the four leads who has worked his way in from the out, then to the top from bottom. His emotions are tied to how successful his hustle might be. As a friend puts it, he's not a fuckboy. But he treats women only slightly more respectfully than whatever BMW he's planning to buy next.
(Disclaimer: the writer is a part of the Incurato founding team)