Nikkhil Advani’s Batla House, based on a screenplay by Ritesh Shah, claims to explore the role played by doubt in a police investigation, but it is loaded with biases. Make that singular: the movie is a paean to Sanjeev Kumar Yadav, a member of the Delhi Police Special Cell team that conducted the Batla House operation in the capital’s Jamia Nagar locality in September 2008. Two alleged members of the terrorist group Indian Mujahideen were killed in the shootout, as was police officer Mohan Chand Sharma.
Suspicions were raised about the police version of events. Was the encounter staged? Was the crime scene dressed up? Was Mohan Chand Sharma too trigger-happy for his own good? Were the slain men Islamist militants or students in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Questions, questions. What place do they have in a movie that has already made up its mind?
The possibilities of a Rashomon-style examination of the slipperiness of truth are immense. But they are firmly ignored. There are moments when it appears that the dramatised version of the police operation will let in other points of view, but they are quickly jettisoned in favour of celebrating Sanjeev Kumar’s valour and patriotism.
Played by John Abraham as an unsmiling version of the khaki gents from the Singham-variety vigilante films, Sanjeev Kumar is a hero who must earn legitimacy the hard way. Stung by misguided reporters and human rights activists, odious politicians and blinkered members of the Muslim community to which the terrorists belong, Kumar wallows in self-pity. He urges his journalist wife Nandita (Mrunal Thakur) to leave him, and when she refuses to, dismantles his service weapon so that he will not harm himself.
Sanjeev Kumar is haunted by Macbeth-level guilt by the blood on his hands, and he imagines ever so often that bullets are piercing his skin. In another telling nightmare, he is surrounded and nearly crushed by a mob of skullcaps.
The movie’s neat binary between the good Muslim and the bad Muslim produces other tone-deaf moments. Kumar holds forth on the Quran, and seems to know more about the holy book than its radicalised adherents. Politicians from entities that appear to be the Congress and the Samajwadi Party are shown to be pandering to minority sentiment, and they emerge as bigger villains than the terrorists whom Kumar has sworn to hunt down.
Matters end up as they usually do in such movies – in a courtroom, where Rajesh Sharma’s hammy defence lawyer turns out to be the latest doubter who needn’t have bothered.
Kumar’s persecution complex, however flawed, is the only bit of shading in an otherwise uni-dimensional character. Mrunal Thakur’s Nandita is among the earliest converts to her husband’s cause. From wondering whether Kumar is an executioner to announcing in her newsroom that she has only one bias, and that is towards the police, Nandita is the first casualty in this war on the complexity of truth.
Kumar’s relentless agony at being the man in the crosshairs rather than the one holding the trigger ensures that KK (Ravi Kishen), the character modelled on Mohan Chand Sharma, is reduced to a footnote. There is enough time to develop KK’s character – the movie has a staggering 146 minutes at its disposal – but he is soon forgotten in the pursuit of boosting the Sanjeev Kumar mythos.
For all his commitment, Kumar isn’t always the brightest bulb in the room. He roughs up a suspect in a newsroom, and lands up in Uttar Pradesh to arrest a key fugitive without a warrant. These scenes exist to showcase John Abraham’s brawn, which is barely concealed under his neatly pressed clothes, and whatever their merit, they do manage to create a sense of urgency and purpose that the rest of the indifferently staged film lacks.
The chase given by Sanjeev Kumar and his team to an absconding terrorist works far better than the stilted domestic scenes between Kumar and Nandita. The inclusion of a club dancer character (Nora Fatehi) is an excuse to put on a hip-wriggling item song.
Some of the lines are accompanied by an echo effect, as though to emphasise their gravitas. What is being said, however, is immaterial. “I don’t need drama, but an answer to questions,” declares Kumar’s superior, played by Manish Chaudhary. It goes unnoticed, like everything else that constitutes an alternative point of view in this operation against the right to raise doubts, however uncomfortable they may be. I ask myself every single day – was I wrong, wonders Sanjeev Kumar. Batla House isn’t even listening to its main character.