Batla House movie review: John Abraham's dramatic film seems burdened by its patriotic ambitions
The opening credits of Batla House inform us that Sanjeev Kumar Yadav and his wife were the “inspiration” for this film.
With Batla House, Nikkhil Advani takes charge of a script by Ritesh Shah that is “inspired by” real life events. In 2008, the Batla House encounter in Delhi became controversial with the public and media questioning the police’s intentions and rigour. The opening credits of Batla House inform us that Sanjeev Kumar Yadav and his wife were the “inspiration” for this film.
The action thriller opens rather awkwardly, with a woman in a tirade. We realise she is ranting at her husband. The camera finally tracks into a phlegmatic John Abraham listening to Mrunal Thakur. A starched police uniform and gun are neatly arranged on the bed, so we know Sanjay (Abraham) is a cop and his wife Nandita (Thakur) is fed up. He challenges her to leave him. But Advani and Shah’s action drama has a Bollywood veneer, so of course she grits her teeth and sticks it out, even when it means taking a neutral stand at work (she’s a television news anchor) against her husband’s methods.
An ACP assigned to a Special Cell of the Delhi police, Sanjay is a decorated and dedicated officer who follows instructions unquestioningly. But things go awry when an investigation turns into an unauthorised encounter and a defiant reporting officer K.K. (Ravi Kishan) is fatally wounded on Sanjay’s watch. Wrecked by guilt, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Sanjay’s life begins to unravel. “Were we wrong,” he asks, plagued by self-doubt.
Along with his team, Sanjay spends the next two years trying to prove that the boys shot dead in Batla House were not students, but members of a terrorist cell. A speech encapsulates populist opinion about brainwashing of youth and the misinterpreted holy book. Some real news footage is interspersed to convey timelines and outrage against the Delhi police.
The latter half of the film picks up pace, particularly when Sanjay and team find their investigative mojo and when the prosecutor and defence lawyers present two differing perspectives on the same incident.
Throughout the film, John Abraham’s demeanour is stoic with a permanently furrowed brow. You see a thaw in his disposition only towards the tail end during the court case. Abraham concentrates on internalising the character of a man who rarely speaks for more than five minutes and barely displays a lighter side.
As Nandita, Mrunal Thakur provides the emotional pillar to what is otherwise a disorderly story about police procedure, institutional limitations, politicking and accountability. Performances by Kishan, Norah Fatehi, Alok Pandey and Sahidur Rahaman are also notable.
Thumping background music accentuates drama, emotional angst and suspense. In true Bollywood style, a typical item number pops up as does a ballad. Yet Batla House feels burdened by its patriotic ambitions and by repetition (including numerous frames of police officers exchanging side-long glances). This pushes the running time to over 140 minutes, and comprises its core story with superfluous Bollywood-isation.
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