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Batla House, Review: Policeman with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Batla House, Review: Policeman with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Distinguishing one police thriller from another is becoming an increasingly difficult task. He is part of an incident/encounter that results in deaths of alleged criminals. The officer’s marital life is disrupted due to his erratic working hours and heavy post-traumatic stress. Having had enough, the wife threatens to leave him. The incident creates controversy and he runs afoul of the powers that be. Most of his higher-ups want him off the case, even consider suspending him from duty, while one or two sympathisers let him see it through, and even glorify him. All this applies to almost all police thrillers in the last three decades. And they include Batla House.

Based on intelligence and surveillance, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Sanjeev Kumar Yadav is leading a raid on house No. L18, known as Batla House, where suspected terrorists are holed-up. He asks Inspector K.K. Verma, his second in command, on phone, to wait for him, but being the impatient and unconventional officer that he is, KK pulls out his gun and leads a small team up the staircase, without even bothering to wear a bullet-proof vest. When Yadav arrives, there is an encounter progressing, with bullets being sprayed all round. He manages to capture one of the alleged criminals, while two escape. During the encounter, KK is critically wounded and another officer suffers minor injuries.

KK dies later, in hospital, while it turns out that the two escapees were the ring-leaders. To Yadav’s surprise, a large section of the political bigwigs turn against him and his team, accusing them of carrying out yet another fake encounter, and killing innocent teenagers. His department recommends him and K.K. for bravery awards, but tells him not to pursue the case. Though Yadav has a lot of leads, he does not have enough proof to establish that the cell at Batla House was functioning under orders from Yasin and Riaz Bhatkal, the brothers who ran Indian Mujahideen (IM), a terror organisation, and who had claimed responsibility for several earlier blasts, in which there had been large scale loss of lives. When he gets news that the escapees are in Nizampura, Uttar Pradesh (UP) state, not too far from the border with Delhi, attending a political rally, he wants to head there and nab them, but is warned by his superior not to do so. He, nevertheless, goes, only to be confronted by local police and large mobs, supporting the accused terrorists.

All the tropes are in place, including a ‘thisclaimer’ that the story is ‘inspired’ by true events. Indeed, in a nation with a 1.3 bn population, and a police force that runs into six figures at least, there will be tales galore of bravery, victimisation, corruption, domestic strife, blazing guns (variable numbers and makes) and (variable) body count. To his credit, writer Ritesh Shah has tried to put new spins on these familiar good-length balls (cricket terms). Firstly, the wife does not desert him altogether, only threatens to go to her parental home. Next, bravery is duly and formally rewarded and recognised, not denied, as is often the case. To his discredit, dialogue is not among the film’s strengths.

The centre-piece of the story is set forth in the first few minutes of the film, not in the pre-intermission scene. Corruption is not really the main issue, with only the state police of UP taking sides, and even that is more out of communal politics than corruption. Blazing guns are seen largely during the encounter, and body count is kept to a minimum. Lastly, the police officer who loses his life due to recklessness and as a result of disobeying the protagonist’s orders, is covered up, though there was no love lost between the two. In addition, we have the officer, who keeps hallucinating about being the next target of a terrorist’s bullet, actually agreeing to take treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Very unfortunately, the director, Nikkhil Advani (Patiala House, D Day, Hero, Katti Batti), is not able to convert these plot points to moments of cinematic intensity. Then, again, does he have to be a prisoner of the screenplay?

Of course one can argue that by showing the encounter up front, the writer has denied the director an opportunity to showcase it mid-way, and, possibly, with different points of view, towards the climax. Likewise, there is a scene wherein the officer asks his wife to dismantle his gun and keep each of its parts in a different place, so that he may not access it easily. This is cute to watch, and a bit lovey-dovey too, but the gun is his official weapon and he is a high-ranking police official. He just cannot dismantle it and get its parts hidden. Wouldn’t he be answerable for the missing weapon? Wouldn’t its absence be noticed? As if that was not enough, on the first provocation, or ‘call to arms’, as one might call it, he orders her to re-assemble it, and she does, in a jiffy. So, what was the point?

If you suspend disbelief to a slightly higher level than usual, there is a nice scene in which Yadav asks the surviving IM member to read a section of the Quran and explain its meaning. When he cannot, John reads it for him and even translates, highlighting that Islam neither propagates nor condones terrorism and that the promise of 72 fairies in heaven for the martyred is all a myth. I am asking you to take your suspension of disbelief to a higher level because the man reading and interpreting the Quran is actor John Abraham, who struggles with normal Hindi dialogue. Arabic, and Quran, from Abraham, is a bit much, and it is not for want of trying.

Advani shoots his first quarter in blurring, rapid-cutting scenes, and the second quarter has some thrilling chases. That is followed by the least engaging part of the film, which then leads to the last quarter, a court-room trial. At 145 minutes, after cuts imposed by the Central Board of Film Certification, the film is about 35 minutes too long, with nearly all the sagging troughs traceable to the third quarter. It also appears that one of the prime motivations of making the film might have been to denounce the earlier political regime, which cast serious aspersions on the way the encounter was conducted, suggesting that followers of Islam were deliberately targeted. Some video clips of real leaders showing sympathy with the victims have been included, besides scenes of rallies showing solidarity with the students, and protests against Delhi police. We have a different political dispensation in power in India since 2014, and such posturing would blend with its ideology. For reasons unknown, though, Batla House stops short of downright condemning the parties in power in Delhi and UP in 2008.

John Abraham as DCP Sanjeev Kumar Yadav turns-in a performance that you would not normally associate with him. In him, we have our own Dwayne Johnson. See the élan with which he crushes a sturdy mobile phone, of circa 2008, to pulp. His face does not show any make-up, instead, reveals some warts. If only he could do something about his language and diction, and make his walk a little less athletic, he would fit into most characters. It goes without saying that one does not want to see him in song-dance routines. John is almost able to raise the film on his biceps and triceps; ‘almost’ is key. Mrunal Thakur as Nandita Yadav has few scenes and manages to infuse them with sentiment. Even she needs to work on her pronunciation. Ravi Kishan as K.K. is natural, brash and irreverent. His baby-face belies a firm resolve. Although he is killed-off very soon, you see him in some subjective flash-backs towards the end.

Manish Chaudhari as Police Commissioner Jaivir looks every inch the part, which is, all said and done, stereotyping at work. Rajesh Sharma as the Defence Counsel quotes Mirza Ghalib, 19th century poet-philosopher, and succeeds, in two attempts. He gets his Urdu right in one sentence, and then it is all wrong. Incidentally, Sharma is so omni-present that it is hard to imagine any film without him these days. Making hay while the sun shines is okay, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ may not be so ok. Sonam Arora as KK's wife is seen briefly in the hospital, mourning, what else? Nora Fatehi is a club dancer and the amorous interest of one the wanted men. Though Canadian, she is cast as a Russian club dancer who has overstayed in India, and who is the sole bread-winner of her family. Here comes the item song! Oops! It is a redoing of ‘O saqee saqee’ (originally featured in Musafir, 2004), done here with a lot of fire. Yadav blackmails her into co-operating with the police, under fear of repatriation.

Sidharth Bharadwaj makes a strong Maan Singh, lieutenant in Yadav’s team while Amruta Sant is seen as the activist leading demonstrations against the Delhi Police. Watch out for a cameo from Anil K. Rastogi, who was wonderful in Mukti Bhawan. Sahidur Rahman as Dilshad Ahmed, Kranti Prakash Jha (good actor wasted in small role) as Adil Ameen, Alok Pandey as Tufail. Faizan Khan as Mohammed Javed, Niranjan Jadhao as Sadiq, Chirag Katrecha as Zia and Yatharth Kansal as Arif, play the members of IM.

Tanishk Bagchi, Neha Kakkar, Tulsi Kumar, B Praak, Prince Dubey, Ankit Tiwari, Dhvani Bhanushali, Gautam G Sharma, Gurpreet Saini, Rochak Kohli, Navraj Hans, Kumaar and Armaan Malik form the composer-song-writer-singer credits. Only the remix song stays with you, and that is largely due to the picturisation. Background score by John Stewart Eduri is much more serviceable, even mood enhancing. Cinematography by Saumik Mukherjee and editing by Maahir Zaveri come into sharp focus only during the frenetic pans, rapid tilts, and sharp angles used in the encounter, and in the chase in Mirzapur. Some angles are awkward, but mostly, the camera and keyboard-mouse are in good tandem form.

Formulaic in many ways, Batla House adds the element of communal politics to a police tale. It humanises the protagonist more than usual, showing him hallucinating several times about facing a fatal bullet, after his vest luckily stopped one. Most characters look a little more real than they would in the hands of lesser ‘film-mortals’. Question is, what can one find outstanding in cinematic terms, of language and grammar, in Nikkhil Advani’s latest effort? The answer is, very little.

Rating: **

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG3K6jB3iW8

Giving a warning to film-makers who venture forth with subjects that deal with unfinished courtroom cases, the release of Batla House was almost stopped by the Delhi High Court.

Matters involving two of the persons who were present at Batla House during the encounter are yet to be heard by the Court, and the accused pleaded that depicting them in adverse light, as the film had done, could jeopardise their chances of getting justice. For the film’s producers, it was argued that an indefinitely restraining order would be against the freedom of speech, for the court could take an indefinite amount of time to decide the cases. Allowing the release, the court decreed that several changes needed to be made, and the producers agreed. So, this is what you will not see in the film:

1. At the beginning of the film, a disclaimer shall be carried clarifying that the film is inspired by Delhi Police and other documents/details of events available in the public domain. It is further to be clarified that the movie is not a documentary but a work of fiction. The disclaimer shall also clarify that the film respects the process of fair trial and does not intend to interfere in the administration of justice by discrediting anyone.

2. The scene depicting the confession of one of the characters in the film shall be deleted.

3. The bomb-making scene shall be completely deleted.

4. The word "mujahideen" shall be muted in the scene pertaining to the confession of one of the characters.

5. A disclaimer shall be inserted to clarify that the filmmakers do not endorse the views of either of the sides i.e. the Delhi Police and the accused in the film.

6. The last scene showing the actual photo of the Delhi Police Officer who spearheaded the Batla House operation shall also be deleted.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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