The title Vadh suggests a grand warrior-like act of slaying the enemy. Rather, the debut feature by Jaspal Singh Sandhu and Rajeev Barnwal takes the story of a small personal battle to a dingy house in a nondescript lane in Gwalior.
Retired school teacher Shambhunath (Sanjay Mishra) and his wife Manju (Neena Gupta) lead placid lives, interrupted only by the bickering that tends to replace conversation when there is not much left to say. They keep in touch with their son (Diwakar Mishra), who lives in America, through video calls.
Taking a cycle rickshaw to a computer centre so that they can see him on a monitor is an eagerly-awaited ritual. The son’s education was made possible by borrowing from a vile loan shark Prajapati (Saurabh Sachdeva).
When Prajapati’s harassment goes too far one day, Shambhunath kills him in a blind rage. The mild-mannered teacher becomes cold-blooded and unflappable as he embarks on a far-fetched mission to deal with the aftermath, which includes visits by a scary cop Shakti Singh (Manav Vij).
Until this point, Shambhunath’s only encounter with crime has been the pages of Manohar Kahaniyan, the lurid pulp magazine that may give ideas for corpse disposal (inadvertently mirroring a recent sensational real-life case), but hardly for such superhuman mind control.
The plot is vaguely reminiscent of Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh (1984) and Mahesh Manjrekar’s Viruddh (2005), which were also about angry old men fighting back when pushed against the wall. Directors Sandhu and Barnwal do not question the moral grey area in which Shambhunath operates. He is described as a relatively harmless cog in a corrupt system that is skewed against the law-abiding middle class.
Yet, even in a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone and Shambhunath is hailed as “Masterji” and “Guruji” when he steps out, there is no help in such a crisis. If there is any goodness left in this world, it creeps unexpectedly out of the abyss of evil.
Sapan Narula’s camera stays with the forlorn darkness of the Mishras’ existence. Sunshine hardly penetrates the grimy walls. Even in this no-hope scenario, Manju climbs the stairs to the terrace with her painful arthritic knees to water a tulsi plant with stoic devotion, although her gods have forsaken her.
Vadh is not about whether Shambhunath is caught or not or even his redemption. There are unpredictable twists after a straightforward pre-intermission portion that lifts the film out of the mundane. Then, there are the performances.
Sanjay Mishra continues to ace grim common man parts. Neena Gupta wipes out all traces of glamour from her personality for the diffident Manju, who judges her husband but also supports him. Manav Vij brings ambiguity to his reluctantly thuggish cop.
If there are any takeaways from Vadh, it is that you should never underestimate the meek and never wipe out the bank account for the sake of an offspring.