By Rachit Raj

A film like Guilty makes you take stock of the world around you. It makes you question the world you live in; the legal system; the social conditioning and the value of good filmmaking when dealing with issues like MeToo. It forces you to ponder about the basics of storytelling and how certain obvious elements need to click for your story to be accessible and emotionally viable no matter how poignant, precious or politically correct your messaging is.

Starring Kiara Advani in what she probably thought would be her breakthrough role (to be honest she is pretty decent here), Guilty is a story set in University of Delhi’s St. Martin College (imbibing the soul of St. Stephen’s College and skin of Miranda House College), the film is a procedural rape narrative. VJ (Gurfateh Singh Pirzada), a college heartthrob, is accused of rape by Tanu Kumar (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor), a Dhanbad-bred aspirational woman struggling to fit in throughout her time in college, in a shocking tweet a year after the incident.

At the centre of this investigation carried out by VJ’s parents to prove their son’s innocence is a self-righteous lawyer (Taheer Shabeer) and Nanki (Kiara Advani), VJ’s girlfriend, who is conflicted about which side to pick. Her heart says VJ is innocent. She wants to believe that, and even forces a slap out of her anger on Tanu to drive home the point. And her mind – as we are told through some dodgy, ambiguous writing – is not quite stable.

Nanki has a dark past that forces her to find a balance through medication. This is depicted by throw-away words like “fragile” that are meant to encompass the complexities of her mental health in entirety. We are asked to be her companions as we try to navigate the “he-said-she-said” situation.

Kanika Dhillon previously wrote sensitive, grey female protagonists in Manmarziyaan and Judgmental Hai Kya, but here the character of Nanki never comes out like a lived reality, which is oddly true of Guilty as a film too. Everything feels like a ticked box, which would have been great had it been accompanied with a chocking sense of paranoia that a film like Pink made us feel.

The problem lies in the uneven direction of Ruchi Narain. Narain directs this film more as a piece on the larger need of MeToo and working as a cinematic piece on the promise and reliability of the movement. In doing that, though, the film loses its grip on the real story. The film forgets that to convey a larger social message, a piece of fiction needs to invest itself and in extension its audience/reader to the story it is telling. The characters need to be cared for, only then will the problem they are confounded by make any emotional difference.

In that sense, Guilty works best in its closing moments when it informs us about the statistics behind the MeToo movement. It is sad, then, that even as we read those, what comes to our mind is not the two-hour long story we have just seen but names of real accusers in the movement. This is unfortunate, because there are some terrific names attached to the film and in all honesty there are few moments that make you appreciate the effort.

Guilty is a film stuck between its desire of being a documentary and a commercial film. What comes out is a film that is watchable at best and patchy at worst. Like Nanki, who throws the names of literary figures casually, the film treats its characters lightly, always making a note that these characters do not matter. What matters is the larger concern of MeToo and how women who come out are shamed publicly. This is a noble-intentioned decision, but it also makes the film strangely detached and preachy: Two traits that are an obvious sign of the filmmaker’s dichotomy in the handling of an extremely important subject.