Batla House Hindi Movie ReviewFeature Film
I can't say about other people but I find it ironically funny that Akshay Kumar and John Abraham, two stars that have been the flagbearers of flag-waving nationalist dramas and benefited the most from it, have their films releasing at the same time on Independence Day, eating into each other's exactly same target audience and most importantly, the associated moolah. Having said that, I fully expect to be left embarrassed when both films inevitably succeed at the box office. After all, patriotism seems to be the most hot selling commodity under the current Indian regiment.
John Abraham-starrer Batla House is a comparatively less jingoist, more police procedural effort than some of his previous successes in this genre (Parmanu, Satyamev Jayate). It helps that the film is helmed by veteran director Nikkhil Advani (veteran more by virtue of number of years than actual beloved films), who brings some dignity to pandering to the audience, or at least he does so for a decent-sized portions of the film.
"Inspired" by the true events surrounding the controversial encounter of potential terrorists at Batla House in the national capital in 2008, the film attempts to take the audience behind the curtain to solve what really happened that fateful day, conjecture about which continues to date.
The film opens on the crumbling marriage of our encounter specialist Sanjeev (Abraham), who is more committed to his duty than keeping his married life together with his quite understanding wife (Mrunal Thakur). It's a smart move on the part of writer Ritesh Shah to lend our protagonist a softer side and much needed sympathy before we even get to the fateful encounter. Immediately, the audience is on Sanjeev's side because we know something about his inner life and it's hard not to feel sorry for someone who has to tell his wife to leave him for her own safety before he heads out to apprehend some terrorists. There's a lot the audience can forgive if they feel sorry for a character.
Advani pumps in the tension as the encounter with the terrorists arrives, and there's some good attention to smaller moments even during that action packed scene. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that the first half of the film is a pretty taut police procedural drama, with some very measured pacing (editor Maahir Zaveri) and equal importance given to action sequences and character moments. Both the encounter scene and a foot chase sequence across rooftops and through narrow lanes are well shot and choreographed, and barring a few moments of exaggerated masculine bravado found in oodles in most John Abraham films, Advani keeps the action grounded and believable.
When it comes to films about retellings of infamous criminal cases that are still fresh in people's memories even years later, Batla House turns out to be less Talvar and more Rustom. While all 3 films do take a decisive path one way or the other in choosing sides, the Meghna Gulzar film does stand out as the most humane and nuanced treatment of real-life characters and incidents, letting the investigation color the audience's opinion rather than presenting its protagonists as heroes or victims of societal injustice.
Ritesh Shah's script tries hard to keep a balance between the two sides of the coin. As Akira Kurosawa explored in the classic Rashomon, there's 2 sides to every story and while you may be perceiving yourself as the hero of your own story, you might just be the villain of someone else's. Shah and Advani do attempt to maintain a facade of neutrality to plant the doubt if our heros might actually be the villains and it could well be that the story from the other side's point of view may illuminate the encounter in a completely different light. But it's hard to keep the drama and the tension escalating without making a villain out of at least one side. As the film approaches the halfway mark, Shah's screenplay skews further and further away from the minority view to make our hero's fight for justice and truth that much easier to root for.
So, every subsequent effort that Advani does make in the second half to keep that doubt alive then comes across as an exercise in futility, since we're obviously being told otherwise that the official account of the story really is the only truth. Even the continual use of handheld camera POV shots from reporters' cameras and news footage soon becomes transparent in its obvious attempt to give the film an investigative documentary feel.
That's not to say that the second half is a complete loss and Advani does keep things chugging along at a fine pace till the pre-climax, despite increasing reliance on cliches on Shah's part to take the plot forward, including an awkward subplot about a bar dancer who turns informer, all for the sake of an ill-informed item song that dilutes the impact of the investigation further. But the increasingly common trend to have a courtroom sequence serving as a film's climax (including the recent Khaandani Shafakhaana) takes Batla House on a downward trajectory that is hard to recover from. The whole sequence is nothing but manipulative farce, as Advani and Shah reveal further details about the events leading up to the encounter with the sole purpose of spouting some bombastic statements about minority persecution and creating a he-said-she-said narrative that neither really fits in with everything that's come before, nor does it seem required when it's apparent by now who to trust and who to not.
To give credit where it's due, John Abraham turns in a pretty understated performance here, a level of maturity hitherto missing from his wooden acting chops. Bulging biceps aside, Abraham does his best to lend some vulnerability and emotional depth to his character's steely exterior, especially in the PTSD sequences that delve into an area largely unexplored in Bollywood cop stories, barring maybe Talaash. Mrunal Thakur gets a highly underwritten part to perform and Rajesh Sharma is wasted in a small role that's built up throughout the second half, only to fizzle out in the climactic court scenes. Manish Choudhary is saddled with such an ugly wig that it's a little hard to look past it every time he's on screen.
On the occasion of Independence Day, the extra-long disclaimer at the beginning of the film at the instruction of the CBFC, recited both in English AND in Hindi at an ultra slow pace, reminds you that true freedom is actually dead and that artistic liberty is an illusion rather than a constitutional given. If that doesn't really concern you as a filmmaker, then there's some serious money to be made this 15th August at any theater near you.