Director: Randeep Jha
Cast: Sachin Khedekar, Barun Sobti
Writers: Zeishan Quadri, Gibran Noorani
Cinematographer: Piyush Puty
Editor: Nitesh Bhatia
Streaming on: Eros Now
Halahal opens with a girl, Archana, chasing a boy named Ashish. The chasing is not playful, it's literal. And it's desperate, at the dead of night across the eerie streets and fields of Ghaziabad. She wants his pen drive. It's always a pen drive. They look young, terrified, hopeful. They in turn are being chased by three men. The scene ends with Archana being run over by a truck. Ashish escapes. The men hastily burn her body. A charred corpse in North India is enough to make national headlines. Archana's father Shiv (a solid Sachin Khedekar), a doctor from Rohtak, arrives in Ghaziabad determined to uncover the truth. (He's introduced in a scene that has him resisting an aggressive builder who wants to buy his clinic – which is to say that Shiv is not a man of money but of old-school integrity). Shiv then "hires" a corrupt local cop, Yusuf (a roguish Barun Sobti), to get to the bottom of what appears to be a massive conspiracy. They make an unlikely team; their religious identity adds silent subtext to our perception of the premise.
Halahal (meaning "venom") is set against the backdrop of the 2013 Vyapam Scam: a medical entrance-exam and admission racket that featured junior officials, coaching institutes and top ministers, as well as "accidental deaths" of potential whistle-blowers and loose ends. Consequently, the background score of the film is not ominous music but snippets of news scattered throughout the narrative. The closer Shiv and Yusuf get to locating the missing pieces of a murky puzzle, the wider the story zooms out. The grieving parent has always been an effective trope to unmask the sinisterness of a system. A personal perspective allows the hidden world to be revealed to the viewer in bits and pieces; morality acquires the language of suspense. The casting of Khedekar, a veteran actor who excels at playing characters with grey shades, is clever – he is an upright man up against invisible villains way beyond his depth, yet our impression of the actor's filmography prevents the character from attaining an underdog-messiah status in our head. We sense his wariness as well as his courage, but we also suspect he is capable of breaking. (Think Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: If the Joker breaks him, humanity loses). It's the opposite with Barun Sobti: An affable actor prone to playing good guys starts out as a sleazy hustler with a distracting moustache, and Shiv's unerring pursuit of justice becomes Yusuf's transformation. The contrasting arcs of both protagonists have a meeting point: Shiv starts to see how money runs the universe, while Yusuf begins to learn that conscience is not a bank transaction.
The absurdist humour of Halahal doesn't feel forced. It's of the Anurag Kashyap variety; the people are so desensitized by the nihilism of their environment that their fate feels morbidly funny
Another remarkable aspect of Halahal is its self-aware rhythm. Every time the two men settle into the pace of an investigative thriller, their "film" heroism is brutally cut short. At one point, we hear a pulpy Sriram Raghavan-style soundtrack score their spying; moments later, they hit a roadblock. At another point, there's an entire montage of them bribing their way into a government facility: the music and cutting wryly evoke a sequence of super-sleuths "tricking" their way into the villain's lair, but the reality is almost satirical. At some point, even the two characters resign themselves to the fact that they will never be as smooth as the movies make them look. A scene – with both of them lying on the hotel bed, discussing the Mona Lisa and wondering if anything (including the pen drive) is real anymore – is startling for what it suggests. It's a way of saying that the society we occupy is so dysfunctional and diluted that no path is seamless. Vigilantism is pointless. Not even grief can earn the privilege of conflict.
That's why the absurdist humour of Halahal doesn't feel forced. It's of the Anurag Kashyap variety; the people are so desensitized by the nihilism of their environment that their fate feels morbidly funny. Early on, we see Yusuf blackmailing a man. They fix a meeting point for the money. When Yusuf reaches there, he is promptly beaten up by goons; his chaste cusses fall on deaf ears. We hear a wedding brass band at a distance. Cut to an injured Yusuf being dropped home on a motorbike at dawn: he is squeezed between two brass band players. The poker-faced editing also becomes a device of humour during an awry abduction. When a hogtied Yusuf and Shiv find themselves in the bonnet of their captors, the car is stolen by small-time crooks – who then discover the two and, again, awkwardly drop them to a bus stop on a crowded motorbike. This Gangs of Wasseypur tone isn't incidental; the story writer of GoW, Zeishan Quadri, is also the story writer of Halahal.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Halahal, though, is its subversion of the grieving-parent template. It's not revenge but disenchantment that drives ageing adults too slow for the modern world. When a father sets out to seek justice for a dead child, we are conditioned to assume that victimhood and innocence go hand in hand. We inherently equate the parent's efforts with the notion that the child – and his/her legacy – is worth fighting for. One of my favourite grieving-father characters is Amitabh Bachchan's in Mahesh Manjrekar's Viruddh. The old man goes from pillar to post to punish his son's powerful killer. It's worth nothing that his son (John Abraham) was a kind man who died while stopping a daylight murder. The viewer feels the moral vacuum as much as the father does. But in Halahal, we aren't sure of what Archana stood for. She was a promising medical student, but the deeper Shiv wades into the mystery, the more we admire the design of the film's opening scene. Our preconceived concept of gender helps: When we see a girl chasing a boy, we presume he's a crook.
When Shiv discovers a large amount of money in Archana's secret account, it becomes clear that Shiv is then fighting as a parent and not as a righteous citizen. Most films might have weaponized the perspective of Ashish's mother. But Halahal chooses the more morally complex route. A posthumous memory often inherits the prism of nostalgia. But perhaps the world today is so broken that not even death can earn the privilege of closure.