The best scene in Badlapur is its very first. We’re at Pune’s MG Road (or Main Street as die-hard Punekars still call it, referenced later in the movie) and a number of seemingly insignificant events are taking place on a street, as viewed from the other side. A woman is haggling with a vegetable vendor. Another woman is walking with her young son. It’s a picture-perfect day and nothing much seems amiss, but we’re hooked. Two men arrive on a motorbike and go straight into the bank, pulling down the shutter expertly as they go in, and no one around them bats an eyelid. A towing van arrives and starts picking up illegally parked bikes.
A few minutes later, the two men run out of the bank with masks on and a large duffel bag that is obviously full of cash. Meanwhile, the mother and her son are getting into the car, which is hijacked by the thieves, while a traffic policeman takes some time to realise what is happening only after being informed by the panting bank security guard. The car backs out and a stunned biker rams into it. Cut.
This beautiful one-take opening shot is the best and yet also the most dishonest thing about Badlapur, for it completely deceives the viewer about the kind of movie he or she is watching. That first cut is a lot like watching the floodgates of a dam opening – calm, controlled water transforming into a destructive, wanton force of nature with a tendency to aggressively sweep aside anything in its path.
In this case, the audience’s expectation and intelligence are at the receiving end of the torrent unleashed by director Sriram Raghavan (Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddar), who ends up delivering a film that is a lot less subtler than it promised to be in its opening scenes. Badlapur is a movie with several good moments – most of them involving Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays the primary antagonist Liak – but they’re like oases in the sub-Saharan terrain that makes up the rest of this wannabe Korean revenge drama.
So, while the botched bank heist results in the deaths of Misha (Yaami Gautam) and her young son Robin (‘Don’t Miss The Beginning,’ says the film’s super classy tagline), distraught ad professional Raghu (Varun Dhawan), Misha’s husband, is consumed with the thought of revenge. Liak, a glib con-man, gets caught by the police and blames the entire thing on Harman (Vinay Pathak), who he claims was the mastermind and the murderer. However, he also remains loyal enough to Harman to not divulge his identity to the police. Meanwhile, Raghu, dissatisfied by the proceedings, kicks off his own investigation by making contact with a prostitute named Jhimli (Huma Qureshi), who is Liak’s recurring flame.
Fans of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance trilogy’ will undoubtedly see the influences. Like Chan-wook’s protagonists, Raghu is shown to be purely nihilistic, and one must give credit to Raghavan for avoiding the usual sand traps of sentimentality that so many Bollywood films of this genre get caught in. For instance, while Raghu is devastated by his loss, he is not above succumbing to his basest desires. For a mainstream-ish film, that is a brave move.
However, its biggest problem is that it doesn’t allow the audience to take the same journey its characters have supposedly taken. A massive jump-cut takes the audience 15 years into the future and we’re told that Raghu has cut off from his social circles and lives in a sparse apartment in Badlapur, a small town just outside Mumbai. Meanwhile, Liak continues to be his Keyser Soze self in prison even after having been diagnosed with final-stage stomach cancer.
It is in this portion of the film that the logical fallacies start annoying you, with the story giving you answers to ‘what?’, ‘when?’, and ‘where?’, but satisfactory answers to ‘how?’ and the all-important ‘so what?’ are rare. Why does a bourgeois couple get rattled by a random, deranged stranger instead of calling the police, especially when there is no solid evidence to support his claim? Where does an enormous roll of plastic, enough to cover an entire room, appear from when the bearer is shown walking into a house with only a bottle of wine and a bag that doesn't seem very big? Why does a genial-but-sharp inspector (played by Kumud Mishra) gather strong evidence against someone, only to arrest an obviously false confessor?
Added to this is the painful realisation that Dhawan does not seem to have the chops to do justice to his role, although he tries valiantly. Sure, he grows a beard, but there is little sense of his character having gone through 15 years of emotional torment. It’s like watching Tom Cruise in a movie like, say, The Last Samurai, wherein intensity is confused with impassivity. It's hard to tell whether this is bad direction or simply bad casting. Meanwhile, the writing is sometimes clever (“This isn’t Maratha Mandir,” says a prostitute to someone looking for a girl who used to work in that brothel 15 years ago), but the characters and situations it creates get increasingly hard to swallow as the film hurtles towards a predictably bloody climax.
This movie does not aim to be more than a portrait of nihilistic masculinity as embodied by its central character, but the film is often swept away by Siddiqui’s Liak, who is reliably watchable and provides some welcome relief from Dhawan’s faux-intensity. This is a character Siddiqui could’ve played in his sleep – it isn’t that different from what we saw him do in Kick – and one wonders if Bollywood is struggling to give him roles that he can truly sink his teeth into.
To be completely fair, though, Badlapur is both a lot better than the average Bollywood movie and could definitely have been a lot worse. The songs don’t disrupt the narrative, even though this is the kind of film that would've benefited from the use of only diegetic music. The production design is quite competent. But there is more posturing than truth in this violent, 134-minute film, which requires too much forced suspension of disbelief for a movie that otherwise claims to be rooted in reality.