This review contains spoilers. Tread lightly but do tread.
Language : English | Running Time : 134 Minutes | Director : Sriram Raghavan
Sriram Raghavan’s “Badlapur” starts off looking like he has been watching too much of Haneke’s “Caché” or Hitchcock’s “Rope” and it very well might be the shot of the year or atleast the best opening sequence in an Indian film this year. If in “Rope”, Hitchcock opens the film with a shot from the window, the viewpoint of a man looking down at the street opposite him and in “Caché”, Haneke shows us the vantage point of a street camera, in “Badlapur” Sriram Raghavan goes one further and makes the street scene seem like we are bystanders. The long shot gathers the workings of an ordinary Pune morning where two men bring down the shutters of a building, a woman is buying flowers with her child in hand, a guy is selling his wares and a cop is on his beat. Traffic is moving along on MG Road, Pune. All the while, we feel like bystanders who might be waiting for the bus or drinking tea from the neighbourhood tea vendor’s stall. There’s action but the enormity of the scene doesn’t register, not until a woman, Misha(Yami Gautham), is jumped and her car is used as a getaway vehicle by two bank robbers, Laik(Nawzuddin Siddique) and Harman(Vinay Pathak). In both “Caché” and “Rope”, the scene is supposed to show us the character’s eye, asking us to identify with the setting but in “Badlapur”, the sudden burst of action takes us by surprise, draws us in and rather than tell, Sriram Raghavan implies that there is something extraordinary taking place. And so we have the posters and the censor certified title of Badlapur always telling us “Don’t miss the beginning”, because here is Sriram’s best scene and one of the most magical of opening scenes I’ve witnessed. It’s beautiful, riveting and pulsating.
One would expect the director of “Johnny Gaddar” and “Ek Hasina Thi” to build on from here and give us the lush noir world he is known for. He creates the noir template, lush and dark with a smattering of red and black. He also crafts a wonderful revenge story where he makes an ordinary man cross that thin line between right and wrong for personal vendetta. Like one of 2014’s great triumphs “Wild Tales“, Sriram Raghavan bases his latest film on the extents that a person goes to when pushed past breaking point but his tale isn’t as wildly funny or as geographically and geopolitical.
In “Badlapur”, Raghu (Varun Dhawan) loses his wife Misha and his son Robin in the extraordinary bank robbery gone wrong which greets us as the opening montage. The death of the two people he loves puts the germ of revenge in him, which he breeds and cultivates for 15 years. The motif “Revenge is a dish best served cold” is not really the reason his penchant for revenge lurks so long but because only one of the two robbers, is caught. The identity of the other is still unknown to him. Sriram has a wonderful premise and a fascinating plot in place but that’s where ends most things interesting about this film.
The biggest problem for me is that the characters in Badlapur don’t mature. Some of them don’t even age. If everyone could be Salman Khan in life and not age, life would be wonderful but unfortunately not everyone is Salman Khan. And Varun Dhawan certainly isn’t. He gets a beard with a speck of grey in it and his eyes toughen. He has a mean stare which is both surprising and scary. There is one particular scene when he is facing off Nawzuddin Siddique in a jail hospital ward, who is fantastic with his Joe Pesci style villain who watches B-movies and ventures to whorehouses above Regal Cinemas which I fear is how he is going to be stereotyped, the entire fury and hatred that lies inside him come out in those eyes.
Except Siddique and to an extent Vinay Pathak, the other actors do not age. Huma Quereshi, as Jhimli, a prostitute whom Liak loves, looks the same throughout the film. There is a splattering of grey in the cop Govind Mishra, played by an excellent Kumud Mishra who brings to life an overweight cop who might breathe his last any moment but even his character doesn’t grow, he just has white makeup. It is not necessary that the supporting characters become mature but when they play the role of a cop who has been chasing a killer for 15 years, one expects them to have more than just specks of greying hair added.
The lack of proper aging is not limited to the actors alone. 15 years is a big change for Pune, Mumbai and hopefully even Badlapur. But in the movie, the regions don’t show the kind of period detailing one would expect with such a big time shift. From 2001, the age of Lagaan, we are jumping to the age of Niruaha. Yet there’s little detailing of this change. The cars have changed; the way women have dressed has changed. The way Siddique eyes two ladies walking with modern western attiring after 15 years in jail indicates this change. But these are changes that would look great with a 2 or 3 year time shift. In 15 years, lot of things change, not only a handful of items. We aren’t looking for advertising these changes but effective detailing of how time has not stopped even if the lives of these men has stopped, either self-inflicted or through authoritarian judgement.
Sriram Raghavan doesn’t believe in spelling out something. He implies. His hero isn’t a good man. He rapes, he seeks revenge and he murders in cold blood. He tortures a woman and her husband, a scene which shows you how great an actor Vinay Pathak is. He details the lives of the leads but only Siddique makes us care for him. In fact, we even like him. He brings us a brand of humor that’s become typical of Siddique. It also doesn’t help Varun’s performance that he is one of those single tear running down the cheek kind of criers. When you want him to weep for his dead son and wife, all you get is puffed red eyes and a single tear. You wish those eyes spoke as much as they can be menacing. So Sriram tries to make Varun likeable by showing us pictures of him with his son dressed as Batman and Robin respectively, a closed room full of toys and photographs which are the only worldly items that occupy a bare house in Badlapur, as much a prison as as the actual prison which his nemesis Liak occupies.In front of an actor as excellent as Siddique, who gets the claps and whistles from the audience, Dhawan’s only got a great mean stare to give us. People might be tempted to talk about transformation for the role but there is only a superficial and uncomfortable transformation which becomes even more evident when we find Dhawan and Yami Gautham having coffee at a café.
The women in Badlapur are objects for the men to condemn, rape, use and discard. Jhimli, Shobha (a sexy and optimistic Divya Dutta), Koko(Radhika Apte), Liak’s mother(Pratima Kannan). These are good women, all in love. Jhimli is in love with the idea of getting away from her profession, Liak – the friend and lover – all her life. Shobha is in love with the idea of saving people, salvaging what’s left. She is a lost cause of optimism. Koko is in love with her husband, ready to forgive his past. Liak’s mother loves her son. She berates him, tells him that he is a “nalayak” just like his father but she loves him. She’ll sell others if it means she can save her son. Their love is understandable, touching even but these women don’t get redemption or there is no one to give them salvation. They are used by their lovers, by Raghu, consumed by their love and then discarded. I am not putting this up to argue a feminist case. It is interesting how everyone is directly affected by the vendetta of one man against two men. Hearts get broken, heads get smashed, souls are battered, and vaginas are torn. Some implied, some told. It is chaos, violent and cruel. The implied violence is blood curling, more than the actual violence that gets depicted through blood.
Sriram’s rich texture is both due to the cinematography and sound design. The sound design in particular is mind blowing. There is a scene where a violent murder takes place. Raghu covers an entire room in plastic and hammers away at two people. The only sounds you hear are the atmospheric sounds, like the plastic being peeled away, the sound of a hammer crushing the skull. The use of atmospheric sounds instead of just turning out a loud or catchy background score makes Badlapur seem more inviting or truthfully, dangerous.
The other reason I mention the scene is in the sudden change and unexpected burst of action that Badlapur always comes up with. The scene is cold, cunning and terrifying. It isn’t only the violent or risqué actions that come up unexpected in Badlapur. It is also the humor which turns up unexpectedly. It is largely Siddique’s character that generates the laughs but it counters the mood rather than accentuate the dread. People in our films usually mimic dread by casting their variation of Hans Zimmer’s horn section loudly. Sriram doesn’t go for that, thankfully but he is also not able to generate the tension consistently using his actors.
Yet, the film is engaging because it is fun. Because we like the chemistry between Quereshi and Siddique, the jail time antagonism with a limping man, the classic histrionics that has made him the actor he is today. There is a funny sequence involving a cop tailing Siddique, keeping tabs on him to inform Govind Mishra,reading the newspaper “Pudhari”, following him to the theater and then losing him. It is fun. By the time we return to the revenge saga, the tension has vanished. It is impossible not to like him and so, we enjoy it while it keeps coming but when we wait for the climax, we feel cheated by this utter lack of importance to what’s about to happen.
It is sad that after pulling us through a series of murders, rape and making us feel pity for the antagonist, when it comes to delivering the killer punch; it feels like the bell rang early depriving us of the ultimate pleasure. The characters don’t realise the meekness either. It is one contrivance too many. There are too many mood swings, too many plot contrivances cutting off the film from the greatness it could otherwise achieve.
I liked “Badlapur”. It is not every day that you get a movie which has such interesting characters, even if they don’t change much. It is also not every day that you get a film which is both stylish and well made even if it comes short in detailing everything. It is also not every day that you get a movie about which you could keep talking and not get bored. Yes, it is frustrating and also disappointing but one cannot take away the headiness and satisfaction that it also brings. Sriram Raghavan has always had a thing for James Hadley Chase novels, here he shows Misha reading Daphne “Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now”, which in retrospect is more chilling and astute than the film he has given us.