Rating : 5 stars out of 5 (Outstanding)
Director : Sriram Raghavan
Story : Massimo Carlotto
Hindi (English subtitles available), 2015
Which relentlessly grim Indian thriller was made in Hindi by a gentleman of Tamil origin, and was rewarded by a normally hyper-conservative national audience with box office collections of Rs.77 crore which was more than triple of its budget, featuring only two songs both of which became chart-toppers with the second one also being a world-class music video, it being a movie which was copied from no other, rather a filmic transfer of an Italian story by Massimo Carlotto, boasting superior performances by both villain and hero (by the end it is difficult to differentiate one from the other), having not just one but two gloriously beautiful actresses both of whom can actually act well, with the first ever instance of an Indian-Muslim actress having the gumption to feature in a directly presented scene of sexual assault from the posterior? (granted the last attribute is not the most noble one). You're kidding if you don't arrange a chorus to proclaim "BADLAPUR".
Sriram Raghavan fires on all cylinders and is in rip-roaring form as he gives us the best film of his career. The first time I watched it , its avant-garde chops blind-sided me and I emerged puzzled. A year later I returned to it, insidiously haunted , and discovered a movie like no other Indian one to date.
The film of course is much more than its start but the promos adopted the trick of saying " Don't miss the beginning". Damn right sure you shouldn't. Filmed in the style of a camcorder-like recording where the lens is mostly stationary while taking in the hellish action, the opening scene that involves a bank robbery and escape, sets the starkly remarkable tone for this ripe tragedy.
Numbed into fathomless grief in the aftermath of that incident, Raghu (Varan Dhawan), a young man, slowly "recovers" to coldly survey the ruined remains of his life. Consumed by a searing lust for revenge against the two men (finely portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddique and Vinay Pathak) who started it all, he goes on a rampage, sometime sudden ,often calculated , that never stops...
Down the decades there have been a fair number of good quality Indian thrillers, but Badlapur is markedly different from most of them because of its clinical tone. There's minimal background music, excess melodrama is cut down, and the intensity and purity of emotion is expertly distilled from scene to another. Humour comes naturally to Raghavan which is why even this ingredient, alien to Badlapur's core ethos, is judiciously deployed. For a film so taut with cinematic style, it is also striking to note this could almost be presented as a documentary of a real-life extreme revenge.
At pic's start, Raghu is a perky youngster hamming it up with occasional American-sitcom mannerisms, surrounded by personal, professional and familial happiness. Soon however, circumstances make him so depressed that he packs bags and relocates to a boondocks town aptly named 'Badlapur' (Revenge-ville). Settling with bare-bones belongings in a mofussil house in the middle of nowhere with a low-profile job as a warehouse supervisor, he waits two decades to pass so that one of those two culprits may be eventually released from jail. The other accomplice escapes and is not found, but Varun waits nonetheless, the days months and years and one and a half decades not diminishing even an iota of his roiling lust for vengeance.
Let's get the negatives out of the way first. There's a scene of resuscitation and CPR which occurs in a hospital inside the first ten minutes of the film. That appalling scene shows almost-catatonic activity (actual CPR scenarios crackle with tension despite need for exactly organized action) and betrays so many procedural mistakes that any emergency-life-support personnel watching this scene will suspect the patient to be dead long before the effort ends. Raghavan's 'shockingly' poor research here is glaring. At the start of pic, the screen declares a proverb : "The axe forgets but the tree remembers..." which is attributed to "Africa". I wonder whether the film-makers would have adopted this same blase attitude if they were required to write 'Asia' or 'Europe' as the source. It wryly brings to mind the internet meme floating around which states - 'Africa is not a country'. That's a total of two mistakes - every bit of the rest of the film soars.
For a story that already has three well-etched protagonists that roll the story's dice between them, Raghavan throws in at least half a dozen notable supporting acts. There's Ashwini Kalsekar from whom the director has a knack of extracting delightful performances - here she is a private detective. When Varun first makes contact with her, she is bent on her haunches mopping her house floor. He asks for the lady of the house perhaps mistaking her for the maid, at which she walks inside one doorway, emerges from the next, shakes his hand and announces herself as the detective Joshi! - a neat slice-of-life intro. Expertly executing tips from Nathan Muir of the great 'SpyGame', she cries and spills out her woes craftily clad as an orthodox Muslim lady. The target's mother who belongs to the same faith listens soft-hearted and comforts Joshi while unwittingly revealing key info about her son - Joshi neatly receives this extracted intel amidst receding tears and bites of batata vada.
Varun's parents are shown briefly - they seem nice every-day people unconnected to the grieving monster lurking in their son. His mother particularly is shown in fetching shades with her interesting little hand gestures - the sort who could effortlessly baby her son while making default cuisine assumptions about how to persuasively feed her devastated in-laws.
One of the two culprits in the bank robbery is named Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The name is pronounced Laayak - a sardonic touch as it means "suitable/ good for" in Hindi. Liak's mother is given a brief but substantial role and it is that of a strongly protectionist parent. The film does not forget to give coverage to her predicament during larger scenes - Varun seems haughtily satisfied when Liak is taken away in a police van for spending twenty years in jail but as the press assaults him with questions, he looks away to see Liak's mother standing crestfallen in the wake of the policevan. It seems unlikely that she could have raised Liak to become what he is, but when he asks her whether there was at least one redeeming quality about his father, the answer provides illumination in more ways than one.
And then there's Liak himself, in a superb performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui who can carry off these sort of roles - a preternaturally confident, street-smart man from a modest background - in his sleep. Siddiqui essays Liak as a lean wiry driven man who wants to acquire a lot of life, nevermind whether he intends to relax or not after those milestones. His plan in his younger days to grab a huge bundle of cash backfires badly, and we wonder what this restless man will do for two decades in the slammer. Liak improvizes - when a cart rolls in lunch for the inmates in the prison courtyard, Liak eagerly lifts the lids and exclaims 'Butter chicken!!" and 'Mutton sukka!!" , "Whose birthday is it?!". We see later that apart from regulation rice, roti and lentils, there is nothing else in those pots.
Refusing to give in to the prison bullies, he gets smashed in the face with a pole, and God knows what else befalls him but they soon sense they can't beat down his buoyant persona. This also inspires him to attempt escape from prison by various strategies which are shown amusingly. But the story's bigger triumph lies in showing his full character arc and contrasting that with that of Raghu's.
Director Sriram Raghavan's filmic CV was limited yet memorable even before 'Badlapur' but box office blessings just didn't come his way. This was especially cruel when it went on to afflict his absolutely outstanding thriller "Johnny Gaddar" (2007). Then, his expensively mounted 'Agent Vinod' (2012) again failed to rock the cash registers but with that film he could not woo the critics either. The ensuing 'Badlapur', after months of sabbatical and reflection, seemed even more of a risk with its cold tone and uncompromizing storyline for which Raghavan had to haggle with the producer. But finally with 'Badlapur', the moolah, which so many of his film's characters try in vain to achieve, came home.
First Pic : (L) Varun Dhawan, (M) Sriram Raghavan, (R) Dinesh Vijan , Second Pic : on raised seat : Cinematographer Anil Mehta.
Varun Dhawan is not a big star but his role here, which seethes with insane rage beneath a tightly controlled exterior, is so exactly calibrated that no other actor, megastar or otherwise, could have done a better job than his relentlessly nuanced intensity. Under Raghavan's inspired tutelage, Varun becomes the central formidable anchor of this film. In a cafe early on, he looks like an innocent college boy but as time exerts its ravages, the change slams in. Growing a thick beard, he looks even more of the 'don't you dare mess with me' type. But beneath that ruthless-hunter physiognomy, he also fires little feathered darts with dark humour. Inviting himself to a home (they dare not say 'no'!), he leaves two people in utter shambles before signing off with 'Lunch was good, I'll return tomorrow!". When encouraging a person to moan loudly and persistently whilst taking care not to touch that person (knowing the severe damage his enforced antics are causing to two separate parties) his face sports a dead-pan expression, as though the satanic humour of the situation has taken away his angry face but cannot yet bring on a pure amused smile. His intangible assaults don't even come close to what he will do physically.
Massimo Carlotto's daring humbling script, with its nihilistic force, stabs of black humour and shades of 'Dexter', is distinctly un-Indian but Raghavan takes the hard turns so smoothly that he propels this narrative vehicle most convincingly through the noir streets of new-age India. Huma Qureshi is at the receiving end of all this, but this voluptuous beauty emerges with fabulous shades of spontaneous acting and an eventual show of deep tender reciprocation. We don't see much of the ravishing Yami Gautam but that is adequately made up for by the unconventional Radhika Apte's brilliant turn.
Top Cinematographer Anil Mehta maintains the disclipline of sparse low-key vistas throughout, but his adroit caliber still shows : from a wide-angle shot of Liak escaping high prison walls, to the camera's smooth persistently on-focus coverage of two collapsed men thrashing about in a near-fatal fight. His cinematographic flair is on full display in the terrific music video 'Jee Karda' - a promo song powered by an inspired rock composition by Sachin-Jigar. Pooja Ladha Surti's editing sculpts the film's lean chops, and there is one remarkably inspired cut where the cop slams Liak's head onto the food plate creating an explosive mess that suddenly cuts to a scene of lost appetite of the affected parents.
By all these subtler elements adding up more and more to create a magnificently bleak hulking peak, 'Badlapur' builds its bets. Near the end, Liak returns from beyond the doorstep to tell something to Raghu. We have known it all along, but the way it is said creates an ocean of perspective around the island of 'Badlapur'.
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