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Batla House

Rating: 2.5

August 15, 2019

Cast: John Abraham, Mrunal Thakur, Rajesh Sharma, Manish Chaudhury, Ravi Kishan, Nora Fatehi

Director: Nikhil Advani

Whatever else one may think of the film, you’ve got to hand it to Batla House that it hits the ground running. Within the first few minutes itself, director Nikhil Advani recreates the controversial 2008 Batla House encounter in Delhi in which two young men believed to be members of the Indian Mujahideen were killed, along with a police officer. It’s a solid opening.

Ritesh Shah’s script fashions itself as a Rashomon-style pursuit of the truth. The incident begs several questions: Was the Delhi Police telling the truth? Were the men who were killed Islamic terrorists or university students? Was the encounter staged by the cops?

The outrage that follows the incident suggests that the politicians, the media, and even others in the force had doubts about the police’s version of the facts. John Abraham stars as DCP Sanjeev Kumar, who is modelled after Sanjay Kumar Yadav, the real-life officer who led the Delhi Police Special Cell that conducted the operation. The film portrays him as a man haunted by guilt, crippled by post-trauma stress, troubled on account of his failing marriage. He is plagued by hallucinations, and plunged into an unfamiliar funk. At one point he hands over his dismantled gun to his wife, unsure if he can trust himself with it.

It’s a fascinating premise, and an especially unlikely character for John. To be fair he submits to it, delivering a quiet, restrained performance. But the film can’t decide what it wants to be – a melancholic character piece, or a thriller with chases and shootouts. The action scenes are appropriately tense and impressively staged, but the narrative is routinely slowed down by a clutch of unnecessary songs. ((pause))

Sanjeev’s wife, a television news anchor played by Mrunal Thakur, is a key figure in the story. But the film barely does any justice to her character, giving little room to the talented actress to breathe life into it. The other crucial role belongs to Rajesh Sharma, kitted out in a scraggly white wig as the prosecutor arguing against Sanjeev in court. This last act is gripping, not least because the script plays to the gallery with rousing monologues and clap-trap lines.

There is much to admire in Batla House but the film is ultimately betrayed by its own prejudices. In one scene Sanjeev wakes up from a nightmare in which he’s mobbed by men wearing skull caps. The film wants to be viewed as a complex search for answers, a nuanced, layered drama about an incident from the past whose central conflict is as relevant today. That sounds good on paper. In practice though the film is lacking in any complexity or nuance.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Batla House. It’s never a complete waste of time, but there was potential for so much more.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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