Some sensibilities are instinctively drawn to inhabit the world of noir. It is an alluring world, that asks you to shed preconceived notions of what is right and wrong, of conforming to received wisdom in both the craft of cinema and what can be only called a world view. Sriram Raghavan is the lone Indian filmmaker who makes a Hollywood genre his own, unlike others who flirt fashionably with the technique and `look’ of a genre that is uniquely American. Other genres are common to the rest of the filmmaking countries (cultural variations are inevitable), but the Western and the Noir thriller are as American as apple pie. Not as wholesome, perhaps – even the basic optimism of the Western has a darker side.
An American film historian once called the Western the Big Yes, while the Noir film was its opposite, delving into the dark world of premeditated crime and accidental excess, evasive punishment and ambiguous absolution. Filmmakers across the world have tried with varying degrees of success to indigenize both genres, and Raghavan seems to have taken to noir as easily as a South Indian to sambar. His diploma film (I can recall the dark mood and homage to Hitchcock, but not the plot details) is astonishingly stylish and throws you off kilter with the unexpected that was always lurking in the next frame.
Exploring a world where the moral centre is missing, or keeps shifting with characters who become captives of situations, is not easy to sustain over a body of work. Raghavan might have gone off track in Agent Vinod from all reports (I missed the film) but he returns to near superb form in Badlapur, with a more mature take on what drives men to revenge. On the surface, we can call it the male version of Ek Haseena Thi, where a man who loses his wife and child for absolutely no fault of theirs bides his time to take revenge. What is similar between the two films is the twisted intelligence that plots revenge to the last detail. There are crucial differences, though. Urmila Matondkar’s character in Ek Haseena This was the chosen target of an evil man, who used his sexy charm to frame a trusting girl to take the rap for his crime. The punishment more than fits the crime. Badlapur operates at a more intriguing level of moral ambivalence. Does the loss of his dear ones through a cruel coincidence of fate fuel the fires of vengeance more fiercely?
Does the lack of personal motive for their death make the loss more acceptable, if inexplicable? Badlapur doesn’t ask this question directly, but lets it simmer somewhere in the subconscious. That makes the film more ambiguous, and thus more haunting than two hours spent watching an engrossing thriller. Noir can raise existential questions, and Raghavan manages to pose a couple of them. In that sense, Badlapur may lack the suspense-a-minute tautness of Johnny Gaddar, but its suspense is more subtly stretched to hint at the unknowability of what makes a person tick – even a killer – beyond the usual remorse and forgiveness coda.
Raghav/Raghu (Varun Dhawan) is a rising advertising executive, married to his South Indian sweetheart Misha (Yami Gautam); they have a young son, Robin. Noir demands iconographic objects to be placed strategically as reference pointers to relationships both personal as well signifiers of popular culture. There is a huge poster of Batman and Robin in the passage of Raghu’s Pune flat. The avenger with his young acolyte is a powerful symbol. The film underlines the tragic absence of the young boy to make Raghu’s loss even more poignant. The beauty of Badlapur is that it grips you so powerfully – till the interval – that you stop looking for such pop culture signifiers. It sucks you into two opposing worlds -Raghu’s grief and Liak’s protestations of innocence when it comes to the killing.
The tour de force opening is totally justified, and it’s not a gimmick. The three minute long static shot, where Pune’sbusy M.G.Road is the theatre, is a masterclass in calibrated build up of action, as you absorb the usual happenings on a street. Along with ambient noise, you hear a woman’s voice bargaining with a thelawala while vehicles drive past, people walk by, the shutters of a bank are pulled down, a tow truck goes past and then reverses to tow a parked car. Then comes a young woman with a little boy holding her hand, and they make a dash across the road, playing it like a game. Two masked men rush into her car, push the woman and boy in, and drive off at maniacal speed.
The chase that follows, intercut with the panicked woman shouting in the car, is an adrenalin rush of action. The cut to an ad being screened in a conference room creates a wholly different mood, of smart repartee and clever filmmaking. The ad is for a push up bra, where the androgynous model peels off makeup and clothes to reveal a toned male torso. This is a hint of vexatious misogyny, of ambivalence towards female sexuality, that is yet to come. Various worlds are on a collision course, to come to a devastating pause for Raghu to grasp the extent of his loss.
Raghavan knows how to squeeze emotion out of blase eyes. Raghu is like a zombie, there but not there when his parents and his in-laws try to comfort him as best as they can. It is when he is alone, taking out a dish of what he calls rajma and Misha says is Mexican chilli carne that he breaks down. Grief is triggered by such unexpected, commonplace things. He avoids the usual condolence crowd and sets out to find a private detective. Ah, how can you have noir without a private eye? There is of course the portly cop who will keep popping up over the years, till he is due to retire. Ashwini Kalsekar is delightful as a female detective who can change appearance from Maharashtrian housewife to a Muslim woman, ferreting out an important lead to Jhimli (Huma Qureshi), the sexy dame without which no noir is complete. She is a call girl and Liak’s sweetheart.
Raghu is now on a mission: find the accomplice who jumped the escape car with the money while Liak, who claims he was only the driver, is sentenced to 20 years in a Nashik jail. Now, the heart of the film: Liak, slimy, ingratiating, snarky, funny and likeable, even when you know he is lying through his teeth. Nawazuddin Siddiqui owns Liak so fully, so deeply, so unknowably that you can’t watch anybody else when he is on screen. It is such a piece of brilliant writing, casting and acting that he has you eating out of his hand and, unbelievably, almost rooting for him while he makes repeated attempts to escape. He takes on the jail bully and gets the better of him. His genuine feelings for Jhimli, his dreams of spending time with her when he finally gets out and gets his hands on his share of the loot, shows a likeable person under the criminal.
If Liak is in a prison that looks more open – top angle shots show the wide spaces in and around the jail – Raghu incarcerates himself in a prison of his own making in nondescript Badlapur, of all places. A train journey to Mumbai, where he finds a girl reading a Daphne du Maurier novel (not Rebecca) that sets him off on flashback of Misha reading it in bed, the other passengers who find his face familiar and try to guess his identity (a TV soap actor?) till the truth tumbles out… it is chance and an overwhelming need to get out, before people start prying at him with questions and give him pitying looks, that makes him jump out at Badlapur station.
It is astounding what Raghavan, his production designers and cameraman Anil Mehta make Badlapur look like… a bleak, sad place, Raghu’s house a place of stark emptiness, with a grey, iron door, minimal furniture; the factory where he is a foreman another vaulted space, filled with inanimate things rather than people, the little temple that looks more like a neon-lit room with a verandah beside his house, the overbridge at the station, totally uninhabited… you can’t get more atmospheric than this. When it pours, the lashing rain descends like an enveloping fog, underlining Raghu’s isolation visually and metaphorically. Noir staples are dark roads wet with rain, with a few islands of scattered lights dimly shining under the street lamps, and what Raghavan creates is the grim poetry of solitude. Noir usually inhabits only the urban world, but Raghavan conjures up an ethos of urban emptiness in a distant suburb of Mumbai. He makes it the badland of today.
The real action starts after 15 years. Liak has cancer and Shobha (Divya Dutta), an NGO head who works for prisoners’ rights, wants Raghu to pardon him so that he can live the one year granted him with his mother. Then begins Raghu and Inspector Mishra’s (Kumud Mishra) chase, in right earnest. Violence that was simmering on the backburner now explodes into carefully carried out murders – in Raghu’s book, they are executions. The most disturbing feature of the film now rears its head, that of Raghu’s deliberate humiliation of women. It had begun with Jhimli, when he first orders her to dance and she does not meet his eyes – her way of protesting. He takes her roughly, suggesting sodomy. Now, he targets Kanchan/Koko (Radhika Apte), the wife of Harman (Vinay Pathak), Liak’s missing partner in crime.
Kanchan is ready to sleep with Raghu, if that will placate him. It is not just blackmailing women into sex, or simulated sex. He makes them strip for him with a cold implacability that is more chilling than plain lust. The bad guys hurt him by killing his wife – he will pay them back by using their women, as a way of emasculating them. He uses even Shobha, by implicating her in a sexual relationship, to subtly malign her image with the cops.
The misogynistic streak of noir is now out in full sight. Women are molls, dames, sometimes unattainable objects of desire in classic noir. Raghavan gives his actresses meaty enough roles, but they’re really meat for the male gaze. Huma Qureshi and Radhika Apte are both extremely good, performing the sleazy bits with bravado and expressing a range of emotions through their eyes. Jhimli is a survivor who will continue to find protectors, as long as she is sexy, and Huma Qureshi suggests an inner life for a role that could have been a stereotype.
As for Varun Dhawan, it is brave of him to get out of his comfort zone of romcoms and dive into dark corners of the soul. He has the depth and range, plus the courage, to go far. Nawazuddin is in a class of his own. You just need writers and directors to tap into this limitless pool of talent. The real star, of course, is the director. Raghavan makes a borrowed genre not only Indian but raises it to a philosophical level, again in Indian terms. It is the way he addresses the question of morality and its displacement that is so gripping to see. An ambivalent view of morality can be fatalistic – it seems to fit into the Indian acceptance of Karma. Or, it can take it out of the ambit of preordained fate and place a person’s sense of responsibility completely in the realm of circumstance, the total unpredictability of life, the chance factor of somebody being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One final question remains. With so much going for it, did he have to insert a stupid, routine item number, with pumped-up young men jumping like jackanapes to the remixed song at the end credits? Why, Sriram Raghavan? Didn’t you believe in your film enough to dispense with this forced addition, which does nothing for it?