The tag line for Sriram Raghavan’s new film Badlapur is “Don’t Miss The Beginning,” and we wonder, first, what’s so missable about it. Everything’s so… ordinary. We’re on this side of a street in Pune. At the other end, there’s a bank. There are a few passers-by. There’s the noise of traffic and the sounds of people talking. It’s hard to say what we’re supposed to be looking at. There isn’t even any music. Then someone comes into focus – Misha (Yami Gautam), who’s crossing the road with her little boy, holding his hand. She’s walking towards us. She reaches her car, and… bam! It begins. The masked men who emerged from the bank with loot – again, no music! – are now beside Misha. They shove her in the back seat (her son too), and drive off. A police van gives chase. And now the music begins. But this isn’t the slick chase we usually get, weaving in and out of peak-hour traffic, showing how well the action choreographer knows his job. It’s horribly messy, and life intrudes at all points. Even as the car is revving up, a bike crashes into it. Then, a dog chases it. Another car is hit. The door opens, and the boy falls out. Misha is shot. And a little later, as if it were the most natural thing to do at this point, we cut to the kind of cheeky ad film (for brassieres) that R Balki might have shot.
What, now, to make of the “Don’t Miss The Beginning” injunction? It’s to make us invest in the plot, sure. We now have a reason to root for Misha’s husband Raghu (Varun Dhawan), as he embarks on a revenge mission. But this beginning also alerts us to the mood, the tone, the off-kilter rhythms of what’s to follow. For despite the lip-smacking African proverb that opens the movie – “The axe forgets but the tree remembers” – and makes us anticipate a sumptuous revenge saga, and despite the badla in the macho title, this isn’t an action movie. The proverb, which sounds like an old jungle saying, makes us imagine something out of a Phantom comic, fists of fury and a leading man who moves like lightning, but Badlapur is about a man who becomes a phantom, a shell of his former self – he’s literally the ghost who walks. What Imtiaz Ali did in Highway – subverting the abduction thriller/romance – Raghavan does to the vengeance-is-mine thriller. The films in this genre usually remind us of Hollywood, of Death Wish, where Charles Bronson turned into a vigilante when his wife was murdered. Badlapur reminds us of Dostoevsky, of Bresson, and of the Randeep Hooda character’s line in Highway that a bullet finishes off not just the man being fired at but also the man holding the gun.
Nothing in Raghavan’s career prepares you for Badlapur. He’s always been an interesting filmmaker, and he’s never really made a dud (no, I didn’t mind Agent Vinod), but I’d slotted him as one of those slick movie-obsessed directors who keep reshaping their memories of the films they’ve watched and loved – a solid genre filmmaker, in other words. Even in Badlapur, we catch glimpses of the things that probably shaped Raghavan. The Nicholas Roeg thriller Don’t Look Now (based on Daphne Du Maurier’s book about another father grieving for a child). Aa chal ke tujhe. Ek ajnabi haseena se. And of course, Sholay. Even the repeated attempts by Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – one of the masked men – to escape from prison could be seen as a slapstick variation on similar scenes from Bresson’s A Man Escaped.
But Badlapur goes beyond genre and simple homage. It isn’t slick. It has a verité feel. The film appears to have been edited on the jagged edges of life.. It’s a slap in the face of films like Death Wish that exhort us to cheer for the wronged hero. And it tells us that no one’s really that heroic, that good, that blameless, that spotless – and it tells us that the survivors are most likely victims of PTSD. They need help. It isn’t just Misha or the little boy who end up as collateral damage, or even Misha’s Tamilian parents, who refuse to eat. (In one of the many subtly amusing moments, Raghu’s north Indian mother asks her husband to go to the supermarket and get idli and sambar mix. Madrasis, clearly, don’t eat anything else.) Raghu himself is collateral damage – he’s “damaged goods,” in the way we use the term for people who are “psycho,” like those who return from war and discover that their life is now shrapnel.
Scene after scene subverts what we think a hero in our cinema is going to be like. We expect Raghu to be in mourning for his wife and his son. And he is. We are invited to sympathise with him when people recognise him on the train and point at him as if he were a minor celebrity, or when he makes a reference to the money he’s getting from his little boy’s LIC policy, or when, in a fit of self-flagellation, he gets beaten up by irate truck drivers. But slowly, we pull away from him. The easy empathy we have for people in these situations isn’t what we have for Raghu. Badlapur complicates our feelings for him. He has sex with a prostitute named Jhimli (Huma Qureshi), and later, with the social worker Shobha (Divya Dutta). At one level, this is only to be expected. After all, why should Raghu be like other husbands in Hindi cinema, whose sex life dies after the wife’s death? But this isn’t just that. This isn’t just about forgetting the world for at least those few minutes. Something else has hardened inside Raghu, and we are left disoriented.
I was initially unsure about the casting of Varun Dhawan. He’s an excellent comedian – put him or Ayushmann Khurana in a light film; you need no other selling point – but he’s also so young and such a livewire (at least in the few films we’ve seen him in) that when Badlapur makes a time leap of 15 years, I couldn’t see how Dhawan, in spite of a few flecks of grey in his beard, would portray a man in his mid- or late-thirties. This is also a man who’s slowed down, weighed down by every negative emotion that’s congealed inside him. Raghu, in other words, is no livewire; he’s dead. Acting older or younger than you are is one of the more difficult aspects of performance, and some actors manage to age convincingly – Anupam Kher in Saaransh, for instance. It was a surprise, later, finding out that the actor really wasn’t that old. It isn’t that Dhawan is a bad actor, as such – just watch him at Misha’s bedside, attempting to console her while breaking down inside. He’s completely convincing. It’s just that he isn’t that good a dramatic actor yet, and there are scenes in the latter portions where we feel an older actor may have brought something more to the movie.
But then, an older actor may not have been able to give us the jolt of joy Dhawan does in the brief flashback when he learns Misha is pregnant. His comedic instincts, his timing – they’re perfect. And the placement of the scene is equally perfect. We see this utterly lovable chap, and then, in a flash, we return to the present, where that ecstatic, young father-to-be has been replaced by this frightening murderer. Raghu’s scenes with Kanchan, played by Radhika Apte, have to be seen to be believed. And my stomach was in knots when Raghu inveigled himself into a dinner at Divya’s home – there was no telling what he’d end up doing. I don’t know if Raghavan is a fan of The Godfather, but there’s a line there that goes “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when cold,” and part of this movie’s mission is to show what waiting that long can do to someone like Varun Dhawan. Liak actually gets a line that riffs off this idea, when he – as the film’s voice of reason; it’s a stunning twist of irony – tells Raghu that at least his crimes were committed in the heat of the moment, unlike Raghu’s, which are the result of icy-chill calculations.
The film makes us pull away further from Raghu when we learn that Liak has terminal cancer. The karma thing, that’s apparently worked. Or maybe God has punished Liak. (Badlapur is the kind of film that keeps making you think about things like “retribution” rather than mere “revenge.”) Balance has been restored in the universe. That should be enough for Raghu. And when it isn’t, when Raghu keeps baying for blood, we realise he’s become the “villain” of the piece. He’s not doing this for justice, so that Liak won’t hurt another family again. He’s doing this for himself. Badlapur is the name of the place he’s settled in, after moving from Pune – revenge is his home, his destination. We don’t want anything to do with this man anymore.
And just as unexpected as the revulsion we feel for the hero is the sympathy we begin to have for Liak. Outside of gangster movies, where the bad guys are the protagonists and we are therefore invited to empathise with them, I cannot recall a film where we root for those who’ve done the hero great harm. The other characters, too, are detailed with great love, especially the women. There’s Shobha, whom Dutta plays with tremulous righteousness. She’s outstanding in the scene where she tries to convince Raghu that he should sign a petition that will allow Liak to be released on humanitarian grounds. You can see she believes in what she’s doing, fighting for Liak, and yet, she knows what she’s asking of Raghu. Then there’s Ashwini Kalsekar, playing a private detective hired by Raghu. The character is written well, but the actress comes off as too flamboyant, too cinematic in a film otherwise so rooted and real.
But the presence of this professional is unusual – we don’t usually see someone like her in the average revenge thriller. Even in Ek Haseena Thi, the person who helped the protagonist was a criminal, someone she met accidentally – whereas Raghu seeks out this private detective deliberately. He knows he’s no superman and he knows he needs professional help. Badlapur is full of these odd little asides. I don’t recall seeing a scene in another film where a prison inmate eats with his hands cuffed. The cut to “15 years later” – that’s a small shock. It’s done so… invisibly. The writing constantly confounds us. I expected a showdown when Kanchan finds out what her husband Harman (he was Liak’s accomplice, and he’s played by Vinay Pathak) did – but the drama happens off-screen. (Pathak is fantastic in the scene in an elevator with Raghu. He keeps us guessing: Does he recognise Raghu? Does he just find the face familiar?) And then there are the hints at something larger – something karmic or even divine. It’s in the way, for instance, Raghu meets Kanchan. Was he tailing her? Or is it providence? And there’s a cop (Kumud Mishra) at the end who finds out what Raghu is up to. I felt, for a while, that this blackmail subplot was unnecessary – but here, too, through Liak, we inch towards the film’s themes of compassion, forgiveness, and the divinity inside that can surprise us sometimes – all of which are now alien concepts to Raghu.
This is the thing with Badlapur. There’s no character too minor or too evil to be regarded as undeserving of love and compassion. Even Raghu. As for Liak, he’s surrounded by love. Pratima Kazmi is wonderful as his mother, a Nirupa Roy who’s been sandpapered over. You can see she loves her son, but that’s not the only dimension to her. She’s got her own baggage, about a dead husband, whom she cannot stop bad-mouthing – and this revelation syncs beautifully with Liak’s actions at the end. Harman too lucks out in this department – Kanchan does things above and beyond the call of duty. And yet, she flinches at his touch. Can you love and loathe a man at the same moment? Apparently yes, according to Radhika Apte – one grows tired of describing performances as “superb” and “fantastic,” but that’s what they are in Badlapur. Only Huma Qureshi seemed to me a little off. Playing a prostitute is always a problem for our heroines, and we know what’s missing in this performance when we see, later, another prostitute named Sweety. This actress (I don’t know her name) doesn’t seem to be “acting” at all.
Neither does Siddiqui. On the surface, he’s doing what he’s done in many films now – puncturing badassery with comic quirks. And he gets juicy moments – when he pleads with Jhimil for “gandi baat” over the phone, or when he mimics another prisoner’s limp. I laughed out loud when, after his release from prison, Liak walks up to the man who’s tailing him and has a casual chat. Siddiqui’s enunciations are entertainingly weird. You have to see the way he says goodnight to Patil (Zakir Hussain), compressing the word and spitting it out like a bullet. But Badlapur gives his character a hell of an arc, and he finds new things to do, newer ways to do them. At first, we think he’s scum – when Raghu visits him in jail and beats him up, Liak smiles, and we don’t doubt the reason for that smile. Surely he’s pure evil. Surely that’s why he’s smiling, at this realisation of how much pain he’s brought to someone. But then again, looking at him in the latter parts of the picture, maybe not? Maybe there’s something more to that smile? Siddiqui gives us a fully shaped performance and yet he doesn’t connect all the dots (and the writing surely helps). He keeps us on our toes. I don’t want to make grand statements like he’s the best actor we have today, but if anyone’s making “I heart Nawazuddin Siddiqui” T-shirts, will you let me know?
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.