The courtroom drama that brings the Batla House encounter investigation to a close is when the tropes-filled story-telling falls on your head like a sad sack of bad potatoes. There’s Shailesh Arya, the public prosecutor—a composite of human rights activists, the media, and malleable public opinion—gunning for the team that carried out the encounter, and the talented Rajesh Sharma playing him, going through the much-worn out template of that role—a ridiculous wig resembling a peruke shorn off its length, mouthing dialogues loudly, attacking the cop on the stand with a verbal volume that used to be the totem of courtroom scenes of cinema bygone. But, apparently not. For director Nikhil Advani and writer Ritesh Shah believe in engaging you with in-your-face drama at this stage (and in this age).
Batla House isn’t a terrible movie. Au contraire. But it never reaches the cinematic perch of solid, tight, slightly hazy story-telling it purports to aim for, after a two-minute long disclaimer in the opening. Right from the opening of real-life, horrifyingly bloody headlines segueing to an out-of-focus screechy outburst from a wife, who we learn is Nandita Kumar (Mrunal Thakur) seemingly ramming into her stoic husband—who’s also the aforementioned cop on the stand in the climactic courtroom stand-off—ACP Sanjay Kumar (John Abraham)—you’re not left in any doubt that this is a POV project and there’s not going to be two-sides-to-the-story progression, which in itself isn’t a bad thing either. When she threatens to leave him—he has no time for this relationship—he tells her in a pained voice that there’s nothing here for her; she must. It is this stoic act that also makes John Abraham the highlight of the movie. For, director Advani ensures that the actor’s emotional bandwidth isn’t strained across the spectrum. Employing a limited repertoire of expressions, the actor powers through the scenes with an intensity that’s simmering and part-rousing.
But it is also this detached approach that strains his scenes with Mrunal Thakur, making her emotional outbursts louder than they actually are—there’s nothing from him to balance her or time-out the emotions. Plus the professional tussle between the couple seems forced and doesn’t create the tensile strain that Advani was ostensibly aiming for. (And that’s because Sanjay Kumar’s resigned to Nandita leaving him.) This is also the angle that bogs down the narrative.
Because elsewhere—and especially during—the encounter scenes and the retelling of them—the director, editor Maahir Zaveri and cinematographer Soumik Mukherjee—construct heart-stopping sequences that are carried out deftly and with solid panache. This is also where you meet the scene-chewer of Batla House in a role that’s much too small—Ravi Kishan playing Kishen Kumar Verma aka KK with punch and a disdainful humor that’s the other highlight of the movie. There’s also his fraught past with Sanjay Kumar, and how I wish the director had added that to the latter’s storytelling and POV, adding an element of doubt and a pinch of suspense to what actually might have happened, given KK’s impetuous propensities.
The ACP’s tense and tacit play-offs with his boss and Police Commissioner Jaivir (played superbly by Manish Chaudhary) are smartly done, but their interactions with the politicos are bogged down by tepidity. The chase between Abraham and Sahidur Rahman (playing Dilshad Ahmad, the fugitive suspect and also the key link to the encounter) in Nizampur is superb, especially where the former finally vents out his venom in a wooden-pillars breaking scene; as is the tense cat-and-mouse skullduggery at the Indo-Nepal border. Where the movie could have upped its on-the-fence, neutral narrative—and added layers of suspense and uncertainty—could have been via a Rashomon-style unspooling; and director Nikhil Advani does employ it a bit in the courtroom scene, but that’s too late and much too less. Plus, there’s a huge plot-hole that leaves you gawking: the cop team’s defense counsel has no insight into their side of the story and investigation until after the first hearing. Order, order, please.
Batla House also throws in an angle of the guilt and horror that cops must live through as they relive their most harrowing moments on-field, even if John Abraham’s character’s self-annihilation tendencies creak under a Ankit Tiwari–Dhvani Bhanushali number. But it’s the cracking post-traumatic stress leitmotif that, even if a bit overdone, hits you the hardest. The first time, when ACP Kumar charges into Batla House, and is shot—John Abraham nails that stunned, horrified expression as he’s thrown, the camera flying with him, to the floor. His hands reflexively go to his chest and you can almost hear his heart hammering. Many scenes later, in the Indo-Nepal border scene, as he hurtles down the road for a chase, his hand reaches out again in an act of human reflex to his chest pocket for his mobile phone. Which isn’t there. That’s one trauma most of us won’t ever recover from.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Batla House is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for violent sequences.
Director Nikhil Advani Time 2h 26 min
Writer Ritesh Shah
Stars John Abraham, Mrunal Thakur, Manish Chaudhary
Genres Action, Drama, Thriller