What do we do with director Nikkhil Advani? The filmmaker’s oddly varied filmmaker consists of some of the most significant, defining and forgettable films of the last 15 years. From Kal Ho Naa Ho to the clutter-breaking D-Day (which remains one of the best espionage thrillers to come of Hindi cinema) to 2015’s futile Katti Batti and Hero. With Batla House, the hope was to see the sparkling D-Day filmmaker emerge once again. Alas, despite its sincerity and competence, Batla House is one of the most frustratingly restless experiences I’ve had in theatres in a long time. It’s a painfully uneven film with flat, uninteresting storytelling which doesn’t do justice to its promising source material.
Batla House follows the true story of a controversial police operation in Delhi. On September 13, 2008, a series of bomb blasts struck the city. Six days later, the police, led by DCP Sanjay Kumar Yadav (a surprisingly impressive John Abraham) raided a flat in Batla House and two alleged terrorists were killed. The young men were students and the police came under scrutiny, accused of staging a fake encounter. The film seeks to uncover what actually happened, taking the side of the police, and focusing on how the subsequent outcry, media circus and public trial surrounding the controversy buried their quest for justice.
The key issue here is how Advani and writer Ritesh Shah approach the story. There, have been many films surrounding a specific incident and their consequences each told in interesting ways. From the shifting perspectives in Roshomon or Talvar or films like Aligarh or Pink where we don’t actually see the event in question till the very end, leaving the possibilities of what happened and who’s at fault to our imagination before taking a stand. In Batla House, however, there is no room for any of this. I wanted to feel confusion or mistrust or suspicion, but it immediately establishes ACP Yadav and the police as the victims being falsely accused taking all sense of mystery of possibility out of the equation.
But beyond all issues of the approach or structure, the film is just plain boring, the worst thing a movie can be. Between its pacing and narrative, it feels two hours too long and gets more tiring as it goes on. It also can’t seem to make up its mind about what it wants to be. At times investigation thriller, at times a drama about the system squashing justice, at times a character study of a man suffering from PTSD. There were points in the second half where I found myself needing to be reminded of what the story was again. Every 40 minutes or so the film does suddenly seem to jerk to life with a great scene like a tense Nepal chase scene, but then goes limp and lifeless again.
Though what’s undeniable is the engaging subject matter. This is a very Indian story about an incident getting blown out of proportion, with chaotic public outcry and political spins, with the truth getting buried amongst it all. Then there’s John Abraham. Usually not known for his acting chops, and despite his distracting physique, here Abraham is in entirely in his element. Stoic, impressively restrained and frustrated, you actually get a sense of the star steeped in character.
Conversely, as Yadav’s wife, Mrunal Thakur is pointless. The usually impressive actress (Love Sonia, Super 30) doesn’t really serve a purpose here apart from being a part of the most annoying onscreen marriage which is distracting and takes away from the film. There’s also an item song with Nora Fatehi. It’s 2019, I thought we were done with those.
At a time where we’ve had a spate of specific, distinctive films of late with films like Article 15, Judgementall Hai Kya and Super 30, Batla House not only feels like a misfire, it feels like a film for the sake of it. And God knows we’ve had enough of those.