At the centre of Batla House is a fascinating problem: How should a movie dramatise a contentious real-life event in a ‘post-truth’ world? This question is more intriguing because art – just like hard data – has the power to cut through binary ideological binds, and show you a third picture: you can then either wrestle with preconceived notions or glow in the warm light of confirmation.
Think Rashomon (1950) but add to it reams of current social and political context in a country on the verge of implosion. That should ideally be the film of our times.
But a movie like that has to be incredibly nuanced. To begin with, it can’t take sides. Batla House, directed by Nikhil Advani, does and does not. It begins with a standard disclaimer – “the film is not a documentary and it’s not intended to accurately reflect those incidents that may have occurred” – and then, during a courtroom scene in the second half, states that the makers “do not endorse any of the views by either side”.
Then it takes a side in literally the very next scene. (The lawyer questioning John Abraham gets trapped in his own argument.) It’s fair to assess a film on what it is: Batla House, though, can’t make up its mind.
The film begins as a very obvious puff piece for the Delhi police. Shrill journalists repeatedly accuse its officers of being negligent. The city’s residents protest against the cops as well. It’s that old binary: make your ‘opponents’ so devoid of reason that you get a hero by exclusion.
Soon there’s a face-off between the police and members of the Indian Mujahideen: one police officer and two terrorists die. But the real question remains: was it an encounter or a cold-blooded murder? More accusations by the press, more chance for us to ‘sympathise’ with the hero, DCP Sanjeev Kumar (Abraham).
A curious structure
Batla House has a curious structure. It doesn’t come across as Rashomon-esque for the most part. We see the events unfold from Sanjeev’s point of view and take them at face value (even though he wasn’t present during the time of encounter). We see him interrogate one of the suspects who, after a few light slaps, confesses his guilt, saying, “Naaz hai (I’m proud)”. Sanjeev takes out the Quran, holds it up to his eyes, presents it to the accused, and asks him to translate a line from it. He can’t.
Sanjeev translates it for him and, in the process, exposes his hypocrisy. It’s a poignant scene – one that reveals information about Sanjeev (that he’s not a bigot and he’s just doing his duty) but also veers clear of being ‘dog-whistle’ cinema, which too many recent films have been.
But this scene is surrounded by sloppiness: Sanjeev has frequent visions of that traumatic encounter, resulting in off-key melodramatic scenes. The entire subplot between him and his estranged wife, Nandita (Mrunal Thakur) – a mousy figure who exists simply to massage his ego – is too one-note to generate any curiosity. Then there’s an ‘item song’ (Advani does try to subvert that trope, at both narrative and cinematographic levels, but with limited success).
A monotonous lead performance
Abraham (a budget Akshay Kumar, given his fervour for nationalist movies) is, as he often is, quite monotonous, rehashing his solemn-meets-intimidating shtick. Thakur is better, but her role clips her ambitions way too early.
Ravi Kishan, as the cop who dies in the encounter, is the most credible. Through Kishan’s character, Advani invites a more layered reading of the film: first showing him as an impatient, trigger-happy cop who later gets embroiled in a murky chain of events. In another scene, with rare notes of introspection, Sanjeev says, “Yes, fake encounters do happen. Even we’d have done them in the past.”
But the moment you hope this might be a Bollywood film that lets you think on your own, it hammers down its point of view (still saying it “doesn’t endorse either side”). Well, you can’t have it both ways. Look close, and there are insidious assertions here.
Remember the Quran scene? Here’s what Sanjeev says at the climax: “Poori duniya piss rahi hai. Sirf inki qaum nahin (The entire world is getting screwed, not just their religion)”, followed by “The defenders of their religion are the real problem”.
Cute. If you can’t ‘persuade’ me with your 145-minute movie, good luck doing that with a tossed-off line from an actor who reminds me of a handsome wooden chair.