Director: Nikkhil Advani
Cast: John Abraham, Nora Fatehi, Mrunal Thakur
Law enforcement officer seems to be John Abraham's favorite onscreen persona. A cursory look at IMDB will tell you that in the last decade, he has played some variation of this character in eight films, which range from Force to Romeo Akbar Walter to Satyameva Jayate. In the last one, he is a vigilante who kills corrupt cops but once again, the motive is to uphold the law and the Indian flag. And John doesn't seem to be tiring of this character – Satyameva Jayate 2 and Dishoom Again are in production. My theory is that these roles fit him like a glove because they showcase his outsized physicality – in Batla House also, we see him shirtless – and his stoic face. As an actor, he is most convincing in uniform, brimming with desh bhakti and righteous fury.
In Batla House, John plays DCP Sanjay Kumar Yadav, inspired by the real-life Delhi super cop Sanjeev Kumar Yadav. The film is based on a controversial police operation in Delhi. On September 13, 2008, there was a series of deadly bomb blasts in the city. Six days later, on September 19, DCP Yadav raided a flat in Batla House and two alleged terrorists were shot dead. The boys were university students and the police came under severe criticism for literally jumping the gun. Conspiracy theories spread like wildfire. Political leaders, looking to score points, announced that it was a fake encounter. A judicial inquiry was ordered but eventually the police department was given a clean chit by the National Human Rights Commission. Sanjeev Kumar Yadav is India's most decorated police officer with 9 gallantry medals. Batla House is a salute to his unstinting courage.
The film starts on a high note. Director Nikkhil Advani and writer Ritesh Shah instantly immerse us into the horrific pressures of Sanjay's life – his marriage is falling apart but he can barely process that. His men are in the midst of a shoot-out at Batla House. A key member of the unit has already been wounded. It's a crowded locality. Every minute requires Sanjay to make a decision that could mean the difference between life and death – there are television cameras, protesters, outrage and guns. You can feel the inch-thick tension and the chaos. And in the middle of it all, stands the police officer, startled by his own brush with death, cornered by the citizens he has sworn to protect.
After the encounter, Sanjay and his team are crucified by press, politicians and seniors. The film tries to explore the headspace of a cop whose courage is rewarded with vilification. At one point he asks, kya hum galat thhe? Like Lady Macbeth, he is haunted by the blood on his hands. But the scenes that capture his emotional landscape and his post-trauma stress don't land. It's far more interesting to see Sanjay in hot pursuit of criminals. I think the weak link is the film's tonality. Nikkhil and Ritesh want both – the heft of fact and the drama of fiction. This blend seems to have become Bollywood's favorite genre – the other Hindi film releasing this weekend, Mission Mangal, also attempts the same.
But it is a tricky tightrope act. Some scenes like the opening in Batla House are designed to feel like a documentary. Through the film, actual news clips with leaders like Amar Singh and L. K. Advani are bunged in to underline the authenticity of what we are seeing. But other scenes are full of theatrics – like one in which Sanjay recites verses from the Koran to a prisoner he is interrogating. And some, like a Nora Fatehi item number are straight-up masala formula. Though here, Nora actually plays a character and even gets a few lines.
The film's pacing is also uneven. The action sequences are crafted with precision but the songs make the story sluggish. Especially those that are inserted to show us the fraying relationship between Sanjay and his wife Nandita, played by Mrunal Thakur. Nandita is a television news journalist. But little about her demeanor suggests the pressures of her life – personal or professional. She is always impeccably made up, even in court where she comes to support her husband. And she insists on calling him Sanjay ji. This relationship should have been the spine of the film but it doesn't have enough depth or emotion.
What saves the day is a burst of full-blown melodrama. In the climactic courtroom scene, Sanjay gives a rousing speech and Rajesh Sharma as the defense lawyer hams to glory. He presents the students' point of view. But make no mistake, Batla House isn't a Rashomon-like investigation of many truths. The film is firmly on the side of the beleaguered cops and it makes its point with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Which is why Batla House will satisfy John Abraham fans. Those biceps were not made for nuances. Viewers looking for a more layered exploration of izzat, farz, desh should probably go elsewhere.