Director: Nikkhil Advani
Cast: John Abraham, Mrunal Thakur, Ravi Kishan, Manish Chaudhari, Rajesh Sharma
A week after the serial blasts in 2008, a police team stormed an apartment holding a suspected group of Indian Mujahideen terrorists in a Muslim locality called Jamia Nagar in Delhi. One Inspector and two terrorists were killed in an encounter that attained cult status for the controversies that followed. Batla House bats for the Delhi Police and does a fairly firm job of it. But Nikkhil Advani's tough-cop film takes the road less travelled. While most filmmakers might have chosen to weaponize the elaborate buildup preceding the 2008 Batla House encounter, writer Ritesh Shah fixes his gaze on the messy aftermath.
This is a clever move. It's the equivalent of the film Sully choosing to reveal the moral magnitude of a post-9/11-era plane crash by focusing on the subsequent NTSB investigation. There's a hero who begins to doubt his own heroism…until he doesn't. This sort of narrative looks at the bigger picture – it automatically owes the viewer a "before" as well as an excuse to explore the precise mechanism of the event. Similarly, the aftermath of the Operation Batla House – allegations of a fake encounter, protests by locals and activist groups, political posturing, a judicial enquiry – offers an opportunity to not just address the psychology of a nation but also cover more cinematic ground.
For instance, you get some old-school shootout action – the encounter is revealed in bits and pieces until it all comes together for the final resolution. You get some domestic drama – the marriage of ACP Sanjay Kumar (based on operation head Sanjeev Kumar Yadav) with his journalist wife (Mrunal Thakur) is on the rocks. You get tragedy – his decorated colleague (Ravi Kishan) is killed in the second scene of Batla House. You get tense cat-and-mouse games – Sanjay spends much of the film trying to track down and prove the terrorist links of the absconding Dilshad Ahmed, the key to his case. This leads to a cool chase in the bylanes of Nizampur as well as a detective-style crackdown at the Indo-Nepal border. You get a courtroom drama – the judicial enquiry is led by a theatrical lawyer (Rajesh Sharma) who grills Sanjay and sets the stage for the grand monologue. You get the patriotic underdog – John Abraham's Sanjay looks at the flag (or hits the bottle) when both public opinion and his own system turn against him. And you get redemption – a Special Cell fighting against their minority-hating and fake-encounter reputation in full public view. This is why the choice of narrative is so important: You get a bit of everything without forcing it into the story. That being said, there is an item song that seems unnecessary (when is an item song not forced?) – the writer's attempt to weave the girl into the plot is optimistic at best. There are also a couple of sad and happy playback songs to score the various mental stages of the tortured Sanjay Kumar.
But what's interesting about Batla House is the makers' balanced stance at the other end of the communal-commentary spectrum. At one point, Sanjay admits that he hopes the Muslim man on trial is innocent, because his guilt will only reiterate a lot of unfortunate stereotypes. This is essentially the film apologizing for its existence in these binary times, but also highlighting the fact that real life – and death – doesn't subscribe to the whims of public sentiment. Here's a cop trying to prove that he is after a terrorist that just happens to be a Muslim, not a Muslim terrorist. So naturally, he recites passages of the Quran to the bad ones, shaming them for misinterpreting the essence of their own religion. It's a brave thought, especially in an era where so many movies are criticized more for their outlook than their artistic commitment to it.
This is why the choice of narrative is so important: You get a bit of everything without forcing it into the story. That being said, there is an item song that seems unnecessary (when is an item song not forced?)
John Abraham is mostly competent because his character is meant to bless a large portion of the 143-minute film with a brooding attitude. I must mention that there are way too many shots of his boss (Manish Chaudhari) stoically staring at him, almost as if it were a contest between the two men to determine who is less expressive. The problem with a limited actor like Abraham monopolizing these roles (prefixes like ACP, DCP, SP dominates his filmography) is that his effort shows, as a result of which his characters appear painfully sincere and…noble. Hence, there is no scope for ambiguity. You already know that he is not the one at fault, because the actor is trying so hard. (A film like Romeo Akbar Walter smartly messed with our perception of this syndrome). But this can be a crippling trait for a complex figure like Sanjay Kumar, whose self-doubt somewhat defines his redemption arc. We never really question his version of events. His trauma – which arises from a bullet hitting his vest – feels a bit futile.
I wonder if the writer might have perhaps played with the viewer's mind a little more if he had the luxury of a stronger performer at hand. I wonder if the film might have batted so hard for the Delhi Police if not for its unidimensional hero. But Batla House is forced to take a stand. And it does, in good conscience. Which is more than can be said about other Hindi movies of whitewashed history.