Badla, directed by Sujoy Ghosh, opens like a typical whodunnit. There’s a dead body, a murder, and a suspect. The dead man is Arjun (Tony Luke) who had an affair with Naina (Taapsee Pannu), a famous businessman, now seen as a suspect. The renowned attorney Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan), invincible so far in his career, fighting his last case, meets Naina to unearth the details of the murder and bail her out.
An adaptation of the 2017 Spanish thriller Contratiempo, Badla is a busy, furtive fare. Largely centred on one conversation between Badal and Naina, the film quickly segues to flashbacks, introducing characters, setting up stakes and, being faithful to the genre, teasing possibilities.
So we find out that this murder is tied to an accident, where a young man was killed whose parents, Nirmal (Tanveer Ghani) and Rani (Amrita Singh), had met Arjun in a chance encounter. (Naina had gone to dump the car and the body.)
Badla, like most conventional thrillers, is built on easy coincidences, resulting in characters getting embroiled in messier situations, causing a domino effect of crimes and deception.
Lies, in fact, are central to Badla. Lies that we tell others, lies that others tell us but, more importantly, lies that we tell ourselves. And that is so because a major part of Badla is framed by the device of first-person narrative: Naina recounting the story to Badal. But any account is filtered through biases and personal motives, serving largely one purpose: to make the narrator look good.
None of this is particularly novel. We’ve seen these tricks before – false foreshadowing, deception built on deception, calculated reveal of suspects – and Badla is scarcely interested in anything else. We only get the basic details of the characters: Naina, an ambitious, philandering woman; Badal, a no-nonsense, smart lawyer; Rani, a mother grieving the death of her son, committed to get justice. The setting too, Glasgow (Scotland), is largely incidental.
In the absence of substantial information, we are left at the mercy of the filmmaker, who holds all the strings to this puppet show. This crucial withholding of clues does make Badla intriguing – especially given that we’re fumbling in the dark all the time, desperate for any lit trail – but this approach can also be convenient and unfair, seemingly designed to mask the filmmaking flaws.
Ghosh revels in such confusion – evident in thrillers he’s directed and produced in the past, Kahaani (2012) and T3en (2016), which benefitted from blatant narrative trickery. But Kahaani and T3en had potent dramatic hooks, centred on troubled protagonists – a pregnant woman and a grandfather turning sleuths – and a setting, Kolkata, pulsing with life.
Badla, in contrast, is devoid of such poignant underpinnings, making this thriller cold and mechanical. A filmmaking experience can be a purely cerebral (and an enjoyable) exercise, too, but that needs the audience member to be an active participant, not someone who can connect the dots only in hindsight.
Even the central characters, intentionally indulging in narrative calisthenics, seem removed from us, evoking nothing but casual voyeurism. Singh and Luke are notable exceptions, distilling their anxiety and purpose in performances that have some semblance of truth.
Badla’s main intention is to astound us, flinging all the possible narrative permutations to keep us confused — some with even probable plot holes (or at the very least, glib plot turns) — so that we leave the theatre dazed, overwhelmed with fluctuating stories and character motivations.
But here’s the thing: this sense of cinematic one-upmanship can run its course, and the bag of tricks, no matter how guileful, ultimately looks dry.
This is most evident in the film’s climax, where a ridiculous twist – borrowed from tacky TV serials – purportedly ties all the loose ends together. A good thriller lingers on even when it’s over, prodding us to return to the smokescreen, making us feel more foolish than we are. But Badla declares its winners, the makers, too early. You are then nothing but a spectator, having just watched a rigged game you’ll not return to again.