Nikkhil Advani’s August 15 release Batla House is a recreation of events that took place before, on and after September 19, 2008, when Delhi Police officers shot down two alleged members of the terrorist group Indian Mujahideen. The men were accused of being involved in a series of bombings across Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi earlier that year. Two other men were arrested for their alleged links with Indian Mujahideen, and a third was picked up as late as February 2018.
The Batla House encounter in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar neighbourhood proved to be controversial. News reports pointed out discrepancies in the Delhi Police’s account of the operation, leading to a court-ordered inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission. In 2009, NHRC cleared the officials involved in the operation of wrongdoing. Sanjeev Kumar Yadav, one of two police officers who headed the operation, was awarded the President’s gallantry medal in 2009.
Nikkhil Advani’s movie stars John Abraham as Sanjay Kumar, who is modelled on Sanjeev Kumar Yadav. Ravi Kishen plays Kishen Verma, based on Mohan Chand Sharma, the other officer who fought alongside Yadav and died during the operation. Mrunal Thakur is Sanjay Kumar’s wife Nandita and Manish Chaudhari his boss. Rajesh Sharma plays a defence attorney.
Batla House has been written by Ritesh Shah, whose credits include Airlift, Pink, Raid, and Advani’s D-Day (2013), about a fictitious covert operation to extract a gangster modelled on Dawood Ibrahim from Pakistan. Shah is an alumnus of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university, where some of those killed and arrested during Operation Batla House had studied.
“Ritesh always had in mind that this was a subject he wanted to explore and he first told me about it in 2015,” Advani told Scroll.in. “While I thought it was interesting, I was conflicted about how to approach this. He would share bits of research over the next year and I began to get fascinated at how layered this was and how many factors fed into this single 20-minute encounter. Ritesh has been working on various drafts over those years and managed to meet the key police personnel involved and so he had a lot of details that were very interesting.”
The project was set into gear after the release of Parmanu, the 2018 film based on the nuclear bomb explosions conducted by India in 1998. “John Abraham, fresh from his success in Parmanu got interested, and from there, everything fell into place,” Advani said.
Abraham plays a key role in the movie, which centres on Sanjay’s struggles to reconcile his professional and personal duties. “The film catches him in a moment when everything he holds dear is in question – his reputation, his love for the country, police procedure, his courage and even his marriage,” Advani explained.
The names have been changed, but Advani has tried to “stay faithful to the events and action of the encounter in terms of what is in the public domain”. The film will not shy away from the controversy that followed the operation, he added.
“It is actually about unpacking what could have been going on, before and behind the scenes, with the players involved – the police, the students, politicians, media, public,” Advani said. “This has to be examined in detail for us to be able to unlock some of the mysteries of what happened that day. I think what’s interesting is that both versions already had truth, but when you piece it together and look at how it all played out that gives rise to a third version, which I believe is closer to the truth.”
How will the movie handle allegations of Islamophobia that have followed the investigation of terror plots, even as it seeks to provide different perspectives on the truth? The National Investigation Agency have arrested Muslims on charges of terrorism, only to release them later. This past week, NIA dropped charges against four men from Delhi.
“I have been responsible about making this film and have treated it in a way that encourages the audience to be responsible,” Advani said. “At the end of the day, Batla House is about grey areas. Within crisis situations like hijackings, terrorist attacks, war, hostage-taking, people in the trenches on all sides take tough, risky, right or wrong calls. It is about how the right motivation and wrong action and vice versa do co-exist.”
Advani wants viewers to grapple with “greyness, beyond 280-character tweets and dramatic sound bytes”. He added, “In this age of social media, we want to quickly jump to a conclusion about who is right and who is wrong and we will outrage, convict and write off so quickly that by the time, new truths are uncovered, they are irrelevant. This encounter is an example of how different truths were unravelled as the investigation went on and how the case was built.”
The director also had a message for journalists: “I think they will recognise that the film is certainly not anti-anybody, and as a group of discerning people, they will agree that a film about an alleged terror plot is less about any particular faith and more about disenchanted youth being manipulated.”
The action-heavy narrative has made the space for four songs, one of which is Tanishk Bagchi’s reworking of the 2004 hit Saaki from Musafir. The video features Nora Fatehi, who has a full-fledged role in Batla House.
“Cutting action to music can be powerful and it moves the narrative well,” Advani said. “The pressure of doing one better than Alvida from D-Day kept playing on my mind. Rula Diya, the ballad that deals with the trauma that Sanjay and Nandita go through, is my favourite.”