When you approach a real-life incident based cinema that is still controversial even after the people involved in it got a clean chit from authorities, the situation is extremely tricky. You will have to take a stand and make that stand believable. Batla House, the new John Abraham movie directed by Nikhil Advani is one such attempt. On a cinematic level, there was a real opportunity to dig into the emotional space of the central character, but the movie gets reduced to a yet another patriotic drama with Nora Fatehi item number.
On 19th September 2008, a team of police officers under ACP Sanjay Kumar was doing an operation at Batla House to arrest a group of students who were allegedly Indian Mujahideen terrorists. But the plans went out of hand and firing happened, killing 2 terrorists and 1 police officer. The political spectrum irrupted saying it was a fake encounter that targeted the minority. The movie Batla House is showing the journey of Sanjay Kumar through all the inquiry commissions and court procedures in the coming years to prove it wasn’t a fake encounter.
Batla House is not a Talvar that takes the Rashomon style to check every aspect of the incident. Batla House is for those who are convinced that the police act was completely fair. Writer Ritesh Shah sort of knows the problem of blindly supporting a problematic character and he decides to invest more in Sanjay’s psychological zone. In one scene he even asks his wife whether he was wrong. This is one part of the screenplay. There is another part that completely forgets the need for such nuances. You have Sanjay going to a minority populated area to arrest a terror accused; a John Abraham one-man show, he is crushing an old Nokia phone with his bare hands, he is looking at the flag with teary eyes, Nora Fatehi dances to an item number simply because T Series wants to continue the trend of ruining songs and yes, we are shown the humongous and fit body of John Abraham. This clunky mixture of layered character exploration and Desh bhakti masala is the problem with Batla House.
John Abraham plays yet another police officer and I must say that they all feel very much the same except for the minor physicality changes like a mustache or spectacles etc. The movie wants us to have empathy towards Sanjay for doing his duty and yet getting crucified. But getting that feeling seeing a straight-faced John is hard work for the viewer. Mrunal Thakur and her character sort of reminded me of the mem saabhs of the 80s and 90s. The love track between the two dragged the movie far too much. In the brooding competition, Manish Choudhary tried to give John a tough competition but the man with the biceps was the winner. Rajesh Sharma as the defense lawyer had a major role in elevating the climax portions. Ravi Kishan was fine in his extended cameo-like role.
Nikhil Advani and Ritesh Shah had previously collaborated in DDay, a movie I enjoyed a lot due to the way it carefully invested in the planning of the operation. When it comes to Batla House, both are doing the balancing act in a very uneven way. They want to show a struggling Sanjay Kumar, but occasionally he becomes ACP Yashwardhan from Force. The hot-selling hyper-nationalism is infused into scenes and just when you think the movie is creating an islamophobic ambiance, there is a climax sequence that tries to clear that speculation. If you try to question such politics of the movie, then the makers have sufficient counter-arguments within the movie. But how subtle and emotional are that is the question from an audience point of view. If you are okay with characters being loud and dramatic, then Batla House may work for you. But if you are looking for a sophisticated, grey and layered exploration of the incident, then Batla House won’t be a satisfying experience. The visuals play with the shadows to keep the movie in that grey zone. The action sequences are captured grippingly. This is one movie that doesn’t demand any kind of songs.
There is a one-minute long disclaimer that says the filmmakers don’t have a stand in the whole issue and during the last court scene it is written under the scene that the filmmakers don’t support these viewpoints. Well, it was evident from the trailer, poster and the movie that they have planned this film rooting for the police narrative. There was no hint of the sentiment going the other way. Then why so much drama with all those disclaimers? Safe play of/for the CBFC I guess.
On a cinematic level, there was a real opportunity to dig into the emotional space of the central character, but the movie gets reduced to a yet another patriotic drama with Nora Fatehi item number.
Green: Recommended Film
Orange: Okay, Watchable, Experimental Films
Red: Not Recommended