What to Expect
With a Sriram Raghavan film at hand, you can’t possibly expect close to anything remotely similar in his films; save for his inherent fascination for yesteryear Indian Hindi language soundtracks.
Oh, and revenge.
Right from Ek Hasina Thi (lit.: There Once Existed a Beautiful Woman), the discerning audience has always seen Raghavan having been fascinated with the idea of payback; be it karmic (Johnny Gaddaar; lit.: Johnny Traitor) or twisted (Agent Vinod), revenge has been a staple part of every one of his film’s endgames. It comes as almost no surprise, thus, that a film – aptly titled Badlapur – would be his next move. What does come as a surprise, however, is his choice of protagonist in the form of the otherwise way-too-affable Varun Dhawan, who began his career with Student of the Year – yet another one of director-producer Karan “Screw-Realism” Johar’s picture-perfectionism-overdose films.
But then there’s also Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who got himself noticed with Anurag Kashyap’s international two-volume phenomenon Gangs of Wasseypur. Having been a part of a bunch of movies since – including Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which took the US box office by storm – Siddiqui has always moved away from being typecast within any character type he’s played thus far. Throw in some more industry stalwarts in the form of Divya Dutta, Ashwini Kalsekar and Vinay Pathak, and you’ve gotten yourself a rather impressive lineup you can expect nothing but the best from.
Raghavan’s comparatively lighter-in-form espionage action-thriller Agent Vinod, however, would definitely be reason enough for the expectant audience to show some skepticism. While still an entertaining romp in the way most mainstream action-thrillers would be, the film diverted majorly from Raghavan’s gritty, peculiarly stylized filmmaking, despite vivid brushstrokes of what one would definitely call a masterstroke in technical storytelling devices.
One cannot deny, despite it all, that this film generates enough curiosity for one to – at the very least – have a look. It’s specifically this curiosity level that would actually encourage the Indian Hindi-language movie-loving audience to rush for the ticket counters of cinemas the world over showing this film.
What’s it About?
The brutal murder of his wife (Yami Gautam; Vicky Donor) and kid leads Raghav a. k. a. Raghu (Dhawan) to nurse a long-running state of vengeful anger that threatens to devastate mind, body and soul decades after its existence.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
One of Raghavan’s biggest advantages over almost everything – including his writing – is the dangerously specific vision he has over almost anything he writes his stuff. It’s this very sporadic experimentalism that actually works brilliantly in his favor. The mad risk-taking shows itself right in the beginning, with a still one-take, out-of-focus shot of the events that lead to the high-risk car chase that sets the tale in motion. The standout element of this shot definitely stands to be that of the uncanny calm and normalcy it has within itself. There’s a buzz about the day; everybody’s going about their daily routines, carefree and unaware of the two almost-invisible figures sneaking into a bank, rolling the shutters behind them.
It is this utter, rather disturbing state of normalcy that today’s desensitized living possess that grabs you throughout the film. Right from the beginning till its looming intermission point, the movie has a very calculated pace that doesn’t let go. The writing allows you to understand the parallel lives of the two sides of the societal spectrum – that of Liak’s and of Raghav’s. In a brave move, writers Raghavan and Biswas deliberately drop the pace a few notches post the breathless opening set-piece. For its somewhat disappointing tropes – the flashbacks et al – the movie majorly makes up for them by delving into the psyches of the characters that otherwise have a superficially different appearance. This – strangely enough – allows for an interesting set of curves in the character arcs of the protagonist and antagonist to unfold before our eyes.
The writing, which solely focusses on the psychological development (or, with good reason, the lack thereof) of Dhawan’s and Siddiqui’s characters, delves deeper than usual into the character motives of the protagonist and the antagonist, thereby unfortunately slipping up on what could have been interesting character studies in the form of Kalsekar’s rather brilliant – yet short-lived – detective Joshi, and Radhika Apte’s (Shor in the City; lit.: Noise in the City) Kanchan. One might, for an absolutely valid reason, argue that these characters did a job that was successfully done by the end of their runtimes. It doesn’t lessen the sheer wonder of what they would have been before the first scene of their existence in the film’s parallel universe. In addition to that, there will be a section of moviegoers calling out on its portrayal of women throughout the film, which – let’s admit – is a very valid point. The argument against it would most definitely be its inherent need to focus on how its leading characters run the story, despite its political incorrectness, which is paradoxically equally correct.
In what would probably be a masterstroke in Hindi film writing, Raghavan and Biswas end up progressively toying with the psyches of the viewers, pushing the envelope with its discomforting portrayal of what would otherwise be a clear boundary within good and evil, and end the story on a note that will force you to question what’s morally correct in societal constructs around the world. Highly unlike the usual revenge-drama templates you’ll find in mainstream Hindi cinema, this offbeat end doesn’t depend on any “crescendo” the screenplay graphs of such films usually posses. How appreciable this template-breaking move is solely depends on what the viewer gets in expecting.
Sachin Sanghvi and Jigar Saraiya whip up some decent original music for the film, taking the cake of which are pop-culture sensation Atif Aslam-sung Jeena Jeena, and the Rekha Bhardwaj crooned Judaai. On the flip side, the music, though exceptionally composed, doesn’t exactly holds necessity or appear at the right time. The background score is an equally well-done piece of work. Anil Mehta’s (Finding Fanny) cinematography hits the nail on the head yet again, with Mehta consistently using the entirety of a frame not just to make it look pretty, but also to embellish it with elements that move a story forward. The slow camera movements and focus pulling consistently allow for him to dramatically play his cards just right. The production design allows for the film to look raw and realistic – just the way Raghavan likes his movies.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Varun Dhawan goes through a visible transformation for the role, which has its deserved payoff on screen. His body language speaks more than his dialogue, which when existent even within the spectrum of dark humor, is enhanced by how he handles it. This film shows good on the amount of potential he has as an actor. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance is not surprisingly effortless and hits bullseye almost every single time. For what little is shown in the promotional material, you’ll be surprised how much depth his character has, even when placed within the superficial box of an antagonist. Pratima Kannan is terrific as the mother of Siddiqui’s Liak, and displays just the right amount of cynicism and vulnerability that makes her the full-bodied character she is. Diva Dutta is efficient, but has a limited role as the social worker. Yami Gautam is pleasing and free-flowing, but doesn’t do much. Radhika Apte shows surprising brilliance as Pathak’s wife, leaving the viewer rooting for her through her character’s existence. Zakir Hussain features in a disappointingly small cameo that could have been handled by almost anybody. The deserving character actor that he is, this was a shameful waste of talent. Kumud Mishra is great. Huma Qureshi does well, with her role having an unlikely payoff toward the end of the film’s runtime. Ashwini Kalsekar hits the nail right on the head, and leaves you wanting more out of the character, purely out of fascination.
The movie has its share of flaws; it’s slow in portions, leaves a couple of questions in character detailing and deals with the women in the film on a debatably dubious level. It, however, is an exceptional revenge drama that starts as unlikely as it ends. With a strong score, powerhouse performances and some standout writing and direction, Badlapur ends up being that unlikely voice that forces us to pleadingly question the presence of moral correctness, and the good-versus-evil thought process that is well-entrenched in hypocritical societal constructs that humans have built over the ages.
For its sheer cinematic vision alone, Badlapur is a strongly recommended watch.
Watch the trailer
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