Director: Sujoy Ghosh
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Amitabh Bachchan
Only in Hindi films do we see ingenious lawyers who are famed for never losing a single case. Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) is that man here; the reason I mention this is because our perception of Badla (not the most subtle anagram) rests on his formidable reputation. Badal takes up the case of wealthy NRI Naina Sethi (Taapsee Pannu) – a woman declared "best business person of the year," an all-in-one award often devised by the pens of Indian cinema to suggest a strong, independent and ruthless personality of a protagonist.
Her case is not simple: the young mother has been accused of killing her extramarital lover in a hotel room under mysterious circumstances. She denies any wrongdoing. So Badal decides to spend three hours with this new client at her posh flat, examining and preparing and questioning her with that booming baritone of his, on the eve of the trial. Precisely three hours, because that's how long most Bollywood movies take to tell a story, and Naina and Badal are required to speak in the language of stories. She is his unreliable narrator – her flashbacks touch upon another sub-narrative that might be related to hers – and he seems to be enjoying his role as the condescending, all-knowing audience member.
At one point, doubling up as sort of a snobbish film critic trying to punch holes in Naina's shaky film, Badal mansplains the circle of destiny to her: if A equates to E, B to F and C to G, then D may equate to A rather than H. In between all their creepy mind games, Mahabharata metaphors and trust issues, Badal means to tell her that in trying to cover up one complicated lie by another, a story often ends up chasing its own tail by arriving back at the beginning. In doing so, he unwittingly calls out the deceit of the film he occupies. Because all this talking, all Badal's wit and Naina's deep shit, is designed as a distraction from what is, in fact, a very simplistic truth at the core of the dense plot. Our interaction with the film is what ends up resembling that circle: My first guess – about that almighty slow-mo final reveal – was the right one. Despite all the possible permutations and combinations that were presented to throw us off, we were essentially back to the beginning. After all, if you look back at the first paragraph of this review, there are enough clues.
Which is why Badla is the kind of suspenseful thriller that uses suspense as more of a ruse than a device. It thrives on creating an illusion that the narrative is constantly one step ahead of the audience when it actually isn't. Even the characters, especially Badal, are convinced they are intellectual multiplex goers; Ghosh's revelation is that they were single-screen potboilers all along. This, too, is an art – the art of making something feel smarter than it is. To make anti-climactic mountains out of molehills; heaven knows this is the very definition of storytelling.
You can see this in the way Badla tries to be more about the elements. The structure: Badal is cat or mouse depending on the yarn Naina (meaning, eyes) is spinning. The prosthetics: The location is the United Kingdom, the weather is snowy and bleak, and a crucial incident occurs in the Scottish countryside, an environment that is organically devoid of population so that there are no onlookers and enough visual mystery. Setting the film – which is already a remake of a European (Spanish) film called Contratiempo (The Invisible Guest) – in India might have been unfeasible; much of the plot depends on the physical isolation of a ghastly incident, an event virtually impossible to design on Indian highways. The characterization: Naina is possibly the unluckiest cheater in the history of flawed marriages, she has everything to lose, her lover Arjun is a photographer struggling to find the right (personal) frame, while Badal, like Akshaye Khanna's smug CBI character in Ittefaq, has a perpetually bemused expression on his face, as if he were merely indulging a movie (and woman) that is beneath his mindscape.
There are, then, two ways to look at a film such as Badla. Feeling let down after the relentless buildup is natural, and the most popular reaction. But the second way is what director Sujoy Ghosh (Kahaani) is interested in: Is the payoff really more important than the process? Can the "prestige" of a magic trick – the final stage in which the missing rabbit has to reappear – be camouflaged by the Pledge and the Turn? For a director whose breakthrough film centered on a woman out for revenge under the ruse of impending motherhood, Badla remains forcibly consistent to this oeuvre of maternal rage. Only, it focuses on the other side of the kahaani, which is why you can see the strings and the puppeteers running the show. Making something – or someone, in this case – look better than it is maybe an art, but it is clearly a dying one.