SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 24 AUGUST, 2019
Batla House - Could Have Been Less Biased
Undercurrent of bias
The problem with feature films made on true-life stories that are based on national controversies is that the authenticity of these films is contradicted right in the beginning of the film with the mandatory disclaimer before the credits roll that goes: “All the characters and incidents in this film are imaginary, resemblance to any person dead or alive is purely coincidental.” In the cases of some films, there is a further disclaimer that goes:– Neither the producer nor the director nor the artists , intend to outrage, insult , wound or hurt any religion or the religious sentiments, beliefs or feelings of any person(s) or class or community.
These two statements carry special significance, almost like a caustic comment on the incidents and characters shown in the film itself.
Examples are many such as Article 15, Uri – The Surgical Strike, The Tashkent Files, Madras Cafe and now, Batla House. The titles of the films are faithful to the original happenings. Yet, the makers must abide by these mandatory and “official” lies just to be able to narrate a story based on raw facts. Batla House produced by John Abraham who has also played the lead role of the high ranking police officer is the latest example.
The Batla House encounter also known as Operation Batla House happened on September 19 2008. Batla House is located in Jamia Nagar, Delhi dominated mainly by a Muslim population. This incident made national news because it happened right after five serial blasts hit Delhi that killed at least 30 people while over 100 were injured on September 13.
The Special Anti-Terrorist Cell of the Delhi Police were specially sensitive and a team led by police inspector Mohan Chand Sharma went to Batla House to investigate whether the young men claiming to be students of Jamia Millia Islamia University were really students or were terrorists of the Indian Mujahideen disguised as students and hiding at Batla House.
This was followed by firing in which encounter specialist Mohan Chand Sharma died, two terrorists were killed, two were arrested and one managed to escape. They were really students of the University as it was later revealed but that was to veil their terrorist activities.
But the residents of the area, along with a couple of Right-wing political parties rose up in protest and accused the police team of conducting a fake encounter and committing murder in the name of investigation and demanded a judicial enquiry into the entire incident.
Several years later, a dramatic court case proved that the sole survivor who had run away and was in hiding was really a terrorist and the accused police were absolved of all charges and proved innocent.
This, in short, is what really happened. Nikhil Advani does not hesitate to pull all the stops and to stick as much as the CBFC will allow to the real incidents and what followed which sticks an ugly finger at the graphic warning in the beginning of the film. He had a tough challenge before him to balance the cinematic aspect of the original story with the historical recapitulation of actual events. So, he manages to allow the drama through cinematic language to narrate the story. The story unfolds through action, decisions, accusations, feelings of deep guilt experienced by Sanjeev Kumar (John Abraham) who begins to suffer from a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His besotted wife Nandita (Mrunal Thakur) who had almost left him in the beginning of the film for neglecting her, takes him to a psychiatrist and Lo and Behold! He is cured!
The husband-wife romance runs like a parallel plot that offers scope for soulful song numbers on the soundtrack but one can strongly smell the melodrama it is intended to create. Thakur however, is very good as the wife but making her a television newsreader is a bit too much of a dramatic coincidence. However, it justifies her haute couture and her fashion status of looking beautiful and being well attired all the time, even in bed.
The song and the husband-wife romance appear a bit jarring in the otherwise electrically charged scenario rightly designed like an action-centric police thriller that, post-interval, flows back and forth between the past and the present and also offers alternative perspectives of the happenings on 19th September 2008. The “official authority” of the law that the police is supposed to enjoy is constantly questioned by the very “authority” that vests the police with the so-called power they enjoy. John Abraham, often castigated by critics as a “bad actor” does more than justice to his role of the officer-in-charge who is shocked that he is being awarded a Gold Medal in a desperate effort to change the anger of the masses against him. He portrays the conflicted character dogged by PTSD very well which makes him delusionary at times. Why his wife has to address him with “ji” affixed to his name and also as “aap” is strange because the couple represents the post-modern urban in every respect.
Ravi Kishen is very good as the martyred police officer and shines in a cameo that he makes significant by virtue of his performance. Mrunal Thakur does almost everything with her almond eyes and that slight touch of clutching her husband’s hand to give him courage is moving. One wishes that her histrionics were exploited more than her looks.
Nikhhil Advani has gone in for direct attack filled with action and does not quite care for the aesthetic balance that, however, comes organically along with the action.
The only flaw in the film is a subtle bias against the minority community specially in Nizampur which, as the film shows, does not appear to be having any Hindu residents and the attacking masses coming from all corners to attack the police car and help the fugitive to escape except for the political leader, are all from the minority community. Why? This bias runs like a subtle yet strong undercurrent right through the film.
The cinematography is as dynamic as the film itself and the same goes for the editing where transitions are handled in a jagged manner, moving through the court and police station corridors to jump to overhead shots of the police cars speeding along the serpentine roads below towards their changing targets and other than focussing on the faces of the lead characters, including Sanjay Kumar’s boss who gives a sterling performance, holds scenes in mid-long shots and long shots. A few of the fight scenes such as the one between the fugitive terrorist and the police officer in the bylanes of Nizampur seem to be a bit overdone. The sound design carries the signature of an action film which it is.
Advani and Abraham together have designed this mainstream film disguised as an issue-based, off-the-beaten-track film. It goes to their credit that most of the audience will cheer and praise the film not as a celluloid replication of the original Batla House incident but as an independent film because not everyone is either informed or interested in the actual story that inspired the film. Batla House is a political, police thriller. But it is also very much a mainstream film.