Badlapur: Darkly ambitious, and very well made

Early on in Badlapur, a little after one of the best executed opening scenes in Indian cinema — a bank robbery gone wrong in one single take — we see a young advertising executive Raghu (Varun Dhawan) present a new ad to his team. The hero introduction scene. It’s a clever, funny push-up bra commercial and someone in the team asks: “Where did you steal it from?” He smoothly says: “Original hai”. And right away, we know Raghu is a liar. The ad is a shot-by-shot rip-off of a popular Thai lingerie commercial that’s gone viral.

It’s a fascinating contrast to the opening scene that introduces us to the villain Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) trying to get away after robbing a bank. It may be too simplistic to compare a petty bank robber to a sophisticated ad thief, but there’s no denying that evil lurks in us all. And that’s what makes film noir instantly appealing and wickedly unpredictable. Because people are like that. There are at least a dozen characters in this terrific ensemble that will stay with you — and character is what comes out when people react to situations they are thrown in.

Sriram Raghavan’s latest is a fantastic return to form and the kind of cinema he revels in making: character-driven narratives with funny, dark, explosive situations, a realistic exploration of filmy tropes, gently underscored by rocking guitar riffs (Sachin-Jigar give the film considerable adrenaline) and visual flair (shot by Anil Mehta and edited by Pooja Ladha Surti).

Badlapur has a lot more heart than the cold and stylised suspense-thriller Johnny Gaddaar. While Johnny remains the best film in that genre in recent Hindi cinema history, it may be a little unfair to compare that apple with this orange even though both have a lot in common — crooks who are actually nice to people they love and nice people on a crooked path.

Badlapur is not just a revenge film. The town is a metaphor for the state of mindlessness. If Pune is home and Mumbai is escape, Badlapur is that godforsaken station somewhere between these two. You can check in any time but you can never leave. A purgatory between life and death for our anti-hero. A prison. Just like Yerwada is for Liak, the villain, or should we say anti-villain given how likeable Nawaz makes him look?

What can solitary confinement and alienation — self-imposed or forced — do to an individual? Badlapur is an exploration of human behaviour, the lengths that people go to for love. And revenge. As the film explores the genre, it also turns around to question it.

The fun is in how Sriram Raghavan pulls it off with his brand of humour… when you least expect it, even in the gravest of situations. He loves playing mind games with the viewer and his love for James Hadley Chase and Vijay Anand continues. Here, he also doffs his hat to Daphne du Maurier’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now and its exploration of grief.

Varun Dhawan, playing a character much older than his real age, arrives as the deadliest onscreen anti-hero since Shah Rukh Khan threw Shilpa Shetty off the terrace in Baazigar, while Nawaz yet again makes you root for the bad guy, making the character impossible to not ‘Laik’. He’s undoubtedly the soul of Badlapur only because Varun plays his character as a complete contrast to Nawaz — soulless, intense, brooding and even creepy. The hero-villain archetypes turned on their heads.

It is a film where men believe in the conquest of women to show their superiority over each other and where women put sex in context. You can have their bodies but never their love. Huma Qureshi and Radhika Apte take on boldly uninhibited roles while Divya Dutta and Yami Gautam try to lend this rather dark film some amount of light and goodness.

Vinay Pathak as Nawaz’s partner-in-crime conducts an acting master class in Nuances of Body Language while Kumud Mishra as the heart-attack-prone overweight cop, Ashwini Kalsekar as the detective who mops floors to substitute for yoga and even Zakir Hussain in a cameo prop up the ensemble of the year.

And there are even smaller parts that will stay with you… like the limping jailbird and Liak’s nemesis, the mother who asks her husband to bring idli-dosa-sambhar mix from the supermarket to comfort the grieving, the cop who shadows Liak getting too engrossed in a B-movie, Liak’s mother who constantly taunts her son for being like his father, a jail superintendent who spots Liak trying to escape, a prostitute who tells Liak that the brothel is not Maratha Mandir to show the same film for 15 years (the iconic theatre ironically stopped showing DDLJ the day before Badlapur released).

When was the last time you saw a film with such meticulous attention to character detailing? The film might not land smoothly after this ambitious a jump but it is certainly an effort that deserves applause. Or as the believers say, Jai Sri Ram.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 8:00:13 PM |

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