Halahal begins and ends with scenes set in the night-time. In between, characters wind in and out of police stations, colleges, hostel rooms and hotels, shining a feeble torchlight on that elusive thing called justice.

The title of the Eros Now original film loosely means venom. Toxicity is delivered by the bucketful over 97 minutes. Its first splash is in the form of a murder disguised as a suicide. Somebody wants the medical student Archana out of the way, and that somebody has succeeded.

Archana’s father Shiv refuses to accept the police verdict. The postmortem report has clearly been fudged. Her collegemates act suspiciously. The police inspector in charge tell the father to move on.

Shiv (Sachin Khedekar) holds his ground. His suspicions are fuelled by a veiled threat from the principal of Archana’s medical institute. The veil is flung off to reveal a nexus of corruption in college admissions that begins at a coaching centre and goes all the way to the top. Shiv’s only ally is police officer Yusuf (Barun Sobti), who, despite his grubby-handed ways, is actually a good sort.

The set-up is hardly new – bereaved father teaming up with law enforcement’s last honest representative. Yet, writer Ghibran Noorani and director Randeep Jha bring energy and freshness to familiar material. The fluid narrative smoothly moves from one scene to the next and deftly scales every tier of the multi-crore admissions swindle. Despite a few plotting missteps, Halahal benefits from sharp casting, convincing performances, an unsentimental approach, and an unwavering moral purpose.

Halahal (2020).

Sachin Khedekar is in solid form as the dogged dad who dedicates his every waking minute to understanding what happened to his daughter. Barun Sobti, minus his haggard, five-o’-clock shadow look and with a purposeful moustache, channels his rangy charm in portraying a policeman whose investigative repertoire includes shady deal-making.

There are moments when Shiv and Yusuf are astounded by their latest excavations. If their discoveries remain in the realm of credibility, it has something to do with the real-life scam that has clearly inspired the film. The story, by the film’s producer Zeishan Quadri, echoes the Vyapam admissions racket in Madhya Pradesh. The dizzying turn of events in that scandal, the allegations of high-level involvement, and the number of suspicious deaths of suspects and witnesses suggested that sometimes, fiction creators could not keep pace with real life.

In Halahal, Shiv’s quest for justice and Yusuf’s search for redemption bring them closer to uncomfortable revelations. In this saga of butchers and sacrificial lambs, both buyers and sellers have their hands bloodied. The prevailing mood is of sadness and frustration, rather than cynicism. After darkness comes light and then again, darkness – the film’s biggest truth.

Sachin Khedekar and Barun Sobti in Halahal (2020). Courtesy Eros Now.