Batla House movie review: John Abraham leads a messy procedural
Nikkhil Advani directs the most atonal Hindi film of 2019 — it’s a legal thriller, a cop film, a psychological drama, a propaganda movie, a biopic and a love story.
Two terror suspects have died. A decorated police officer has been gunned down. Protesters are closing in, kindled by the media. The country is politically-fraught. There’s broiling anger, and public sentiment is as fickle as ever. The more I think back on it, Batla House feels like a missed opportunity. Nikkhil Advani, director of films as diverse as Kal Ho Naa Ho and D-Day, is a fine juggler of genres. A procedural thriller, in his hands, should have worked. The material — a recreation of the 2008 Batla House encounter killings, which sparked a witch-hunt against the Delhi Police — is promptly edge-of-the-seat. All Nikkhil had to do was slow-bleed the suspense, and extend the moral tossup.
Cast: John Abraham, Mrunal Thakur
Director: Nikkhil Advani
But Batla House is not that kind of film. Releasing in an India where accountability is routinely stigmatised, and systematic failures are ignored in sight of a common good, the film is compelled to pick a side. It has every reason to do so: the facts of the case, as ruled by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 2009, point to only one direction. Yet, consider for a moment the thrills of what could have been. Much later in the film, we see the version of events as imagined by the protesters. It plays out as speculative flashbacks in the public prosecutor’s head: cops staking out innocent college kids, framing them for terror attacks. Even as fictions, these scenes are dramatically loaded. Why not play that way from the start? Why let the audience in when keeping them out is far more electrifying?
Special Cell officer Sanjay Kumar (John Abraham) arrives late to a shootout. His partner, KK (a terrific Ravi Kishan), is wounded. Sanjay barges into the hideout. Guns are drawn and bodies collapse. One operative is captured, two escape. Outside, a crowd has gathered. In a blink, Sanjay is incinerated on news screens, his wife Nandita (Mrunal Thakur) working at one of the channels. The rest of the film follows Sanjay as he tries to prove his innocence, amid anti-minority accusations against the entire department.
The PTSD scenes are stale. Clobbered with allegations, Sanjay loses grip on reality. KK’s death haunts him. Their investigation into the Indian Mujahideen is stalled. Sanjay starts hallucinating, hits the bottle. He draws a gun on his wife, who lingers on. A news reporter wonders aloud, “When we ask questions, why do they think we are doubting them?” At another instance, Sanjay objects to an internal inquiry because it would ‘demoralise’ his unit. John tucks his shirt in and flies with the character. This is the actor’s fourth nationalistic release in sixteen months. The switchbacks are getting scary. I wonder what Virendra Rathod — John’s cop-killing vigilante in Satyameva Jayate — would make of Sanjay Kumar? (My guess is that he would burn Sanjay alive, then send a hand-drawn apology to the Delhi headquarters).
I liked the realistically small courtroom the film winds up to. Nora Fatehi gets a handful of scenes. In the opening stretch, as cops approach the suspected apartment, the camera closes in on their sweaty hands. A terrorist spiels about ‘binary theory’, laying claim to ‘maidan, media, aur mardangi’. Batla House is the most atonal Hindi film of the year — it’s a legal thriller, a cop film, a psychological drama, a propaganda movie, a biopic, and a love story. It’s a film that demonises the media, but also accepts encounter killings happen. It brushes aside references to ‘Ayodhya’ and ‘Gujarat’, but also calls out the tainting of one community.
In most courtrooms, lawyers are discouraged from ‘badgering the witness.’ No such objections can be raised in a movie hall. Batla House hammers away at an obvious conclusion, and doesn’t let up till the end. Lest we forget, arguing loud is not arguing well.