Film: Batla House
Director: Nikhil Advani
Cast: John Abraham, Mrunal Thakur, Rajesh Sharma, Manish Chaudhary, Nora Fatehi
Batla House is John Abraham’s move away from his own brand of nationalistic films that unquestionably always establish the state’s righteousness (even though it is only for some time) and tries to dig deeper into the complexities of this genre. For that regard alone, makers deserve a commendable mention. Batla House is inspired by true events that took place during the September 2008 Delhi Police encounter in Jamia Nagar and its aftermath.
It is interesting to see the lead character’s psychological struggle as he deals with PTSD after the encounter. John plays the lead role of a police officer Sanjay Kumar inspired by Sanjeev Kumar Yadav, the officer who played a crucial role in the encounter. Most usually always, heroes of this genre — many played by John, himself — have immense physical and mental health, unaffected by the traumas of the lives they lead, barring an exception here and there, we do not generally see heroes do that.
Batla House tried to make the text more realistic by also showing moments of miscalculation on hero’s part of a kind not seen before. For instance; John and his Special Cell team go to Nizampur in UP to arrest an accused and return empty-handed. Mostly, that kind of miscalculation in this genre is done by a rat or someone else but never the lead infallible hero.
Nikkhil Advani, the director, tried to weave a relatable narrative around the hero who is also believable, a skill he has mastered with the likes of his filmography through D-Day and produced for other films.
Mrunal Thakur plays John Abraham’s wife, who is also a news anchor in a leading channel. Makers also tried to give as much space to her when female leads are not given that in a hero-oriented patriotic drama that is all about the odds he fights in order to make the country safe. The role may have gotten bigger in that regard but the first one to rat out a man is also obviously a woman. A narrative traditional trope that hasn’t been changed at all in the cinema of all places. Nora Fatehi makes a guest appearance in the film, playing the rat, for which, her appearance in the recreation of “O Saki Saki” is also justified.
Despite questioning himself in numerous situations and times, whether he was right or not, the film also tried to play out the media, politicians’ perspective and contribution in the encounter; from real footage of Congress leaders who spoke on the encounter to the then Aam Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal to activists’ interventions in the case. The portrayal was balanced well, and so was the fact and fiction part of the encounter case. The flashbacks that played out in the end of the film in the courtroom, fitted well into the show-not-tell narrative and created a space to not let prejudice seep down into the text that tried really hard to create a balance between both sides; accused and accuser.
One cannot call Batla House a neutral film; the protagonist defends himself and his stance in places of immense dramatic potential and symbolism of the national flag and what is aroused in the hero is unmissable, thereby stating his integrity and that good shall always win over evil arch – a trend John has been carrying for a long time, last seen in Romeo Akbar Walter. In fact, John’s character does mention in one part, that everyone knows good triumphs over evil but what is the price paid to achieve that truth is what matters and how you emerge from that struggle. Batla House is clear on the ideological part then, from the very beginning, no one, not even the higher authorities within the Delhi Police object to John’s integrity; there is no doubt from the beginning about that part. So, how far does the observation-of-the-encounter in the film without-taking-sides-narrative stand?
One could argue that the film based on true events necessarily limit the scope of exploration of characters’ arch or the plot for obvious reasons – of conformation to reality. How far can the maker and actor go then? But within that limitation sphere, to explore ‘truth’s’ versions and the reason, the maker has chosen that particular subject to make a film as important.
An important cathartic moment that occurs at the end of the film in the courtroom, where John testifies to the jury, public and activists that he wants the accused to be proven innocent for it is not him but the people who have brainwashed him that are to be accused more…and that those who pit one community as disadvantaged at the hands of others are to be punished etc., is like that last cry of statement that the filmmaker said all through and re-instated as the film was to close.
The film material is well researched upon and shown, and so is how it has been shot. The pace of the film was well established and is given time to grow on the audience gradually, especially in the first half.
John’s straight face performance serves him well in films of this kind; the grey shades of his character’s personality are thrown some light upon but never delving too directly into them thankfully. Strong emphatic performances’, even if it’s just a glance here and there or tensed body language of supporting characters like Manish Choudhary deserve a mention.
Mrunal Thakur is barely there and just works like a sane foil on to whom John can lean on. However, director Advani tried to increase screen-space for her which never quite succeeded.
Batla House is well-situated in terms of design.
The crispness of shirts and uncreased clothes in the toughest of conditions, adorned by the hero, are obvious elements never looked upon in any film for that matter.
The film began with a disclaimer that was read out in Hindi and English both suggesting that the makers did not endorse anybody’s views or tried to take any sides, a part of which was repeated in a confession scene; all of which was inserted after the Delhi HC addressed the appeal of two of the accused in the real encounter so as to not let the pending trial become biased.
How far does something of this kind affect the viewing experience, if the film has already said something much before it begins to roll on-screen is a question I am still looking answers for?