Badla Review (SPOILERS): All About the Mahabharata (do not read this review if you can possibly see the movie, really you will regret it, save yourself)

Yaaaay, a good movie! I love when I can review a good movie instead of complaining about a bad one. This isn’t, like “brilliant perfect best ever” movie. But it is very well-made and generally solid. If you like kind of mystery thriller movies. Oh, and AVOID SPOILERS. Don’t read this review if you have any chance of watching this movie, read this review instead.

Whole plot in two paragraphs:

Taapsee is a young successful CEO who is accused of murder. It’s an impossible locked room puzzle, she and her lover were in a hotel room together, waiting to meet a blackmailer. Suddenly she was knocked out, and woke up to find the police pounding on the door and her lover dead in the bathroom. Now she is out on bail and trying to put together her defense. Amitabh is the hotshot lawyer brought in by her regular lawyer best friend to help her. He is here at her apartment to challenge her story and walk her through it all until they put together a version that can hold up in court. Taapsee admits that the real story started months earlier. She and her lover accidentally killed a young man in a car accident, but then covered it up and drove the body and his car into a pond so they wouldn’t be caught having an affair together. Coincidentally, her lover ended up being helped with the broken car by a nice older couple that are the parents of the young man they killed and they catch a few clues indicating he was involved in the accident and maybe was traveling with a woman. The young man’s parents kept pushing, the police started a search, it wasn’t ending. So her lover framed the young man using his wallet for theft from the bank where he worked, and Taapsee got help from her old friend and lawyer Manav Kaul to fake evidence of her Paris trip. The police stopped investigating, but his mother Amrita was sure something happened, he wouldn’t have stolen and run away. Amrita confronted Taapsee in public, and then later Taapsee got a blackmail request. She and her lover went to meet the blackmailer at the hotel, and her lover was killed and she was attacked.

Amitabh picks up on her story and explains how they can fix it. The locked room mystery can be solved, there was a staff room next door, and coincidentally this was the hotel where the young man’s father worked. Amrita got into the room in advance and hid in the cupboard. She killed the lover and knocked out Taapsee, then used the tool her husband gave her to slip out the window, climb on the ledge, and get into the staff room next door where she put the window tool away and then calmly walked out of the hotel. The only problem is, they have to explain motive. Taapsee has to reveal where she left the body so they can explain why Amrita wanted to kill them. Taapsee finally agrees, and shows where the body was, and then admits that the body wasn’t actually dead when she pushed the car in. Amitabh takes off from this admission and suggests, just as a possibility, he has another explanation for everything that happened. Perhaps it was Taapsee who pushed to hide the accident, after all she was the one who drove the car off. Perhaps it was her lover who felt guilt, maybe he even reached out to the parents and set up a meeting at the hotel, and forced her to bring the money to give to the parents. Maybe she found out what he was doing and killed him and then, when the police were at the door, she knocked herself out to play the victim. And now she is trying to get help in framing Amrita so she can get out scottfree. Taapsee more or less admits it, but also that it doesn’t really matter because Amitabh works for her and has to help her get off. Amitabh agrees, and then leaves to take a phone call. He walks across the street to meet with Amrita in an apartment across the street as Taapsee discovers a microphone in his pen and realizes their whole conversation was recorded. There is a knock on the door, it is the real lawyer. Amitabh was Amrita’s husband, in disguise, to trick her into confessing so they can finally have peace.

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I tried to simplify the plot as much as possible and it still looks like a mess. It’s supposed to be a mess, because we keep seeing it from so many other angles and none of them make sense. But the simple version is that Taapsee cold-bloodedly covered up two murders, she is a wealthy brilliant powerful woman and the people she hurt are forgotten and powerless. But they won’t forgive or forget, and they will wait and do whatever they need to do to get their revenge. Including a mad scheme to pretend to be a lawyer and trick her into admitting what they really want to know (the location of their son’s body).

This is where Amitabh’s acting amazingness comes in to play. He has to play a prosaic lawyer who has no emotional involvement in this case, but in a way that keeps the audience interested in what is happening through little unexpected intonations and gestures. He has to subtly show disgust and real emotion as the true horror of what Taapsee has done comes through, as you would expect even a disinterested lawyer to start caring when he hears these things. And underneath it all, he has to keep the simmering anger and fear of the grieving father playing a crazy gambit flowing along. There’s one moment in particular when he lets the lawyer mask drop and his face subtly shifts to torment and despair, before coming back again to casual cheer. It’s just a tour de force performance, something that few actors ever would have been able to pull off.

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The original script idea is good. I haven’t seen the original film, it’s a Spanish film Contratiempo, but I can see from the synopsis that the clever structure of the plot comes from there, the framing of the lawyer and client, the reveal of the multiple versions and the accident that lead to murder, even the little touches like the red herring of a passing motorist who could be the blackmailer, the windows that won’t open in the hotel (which Taapsee didn’t know, so her initial instinct to frame someone else for the murder was with the assumption that the room would be easier to exit and she could explain the lack of someone else that way), and so on and so forth. But the Indian version (written by Sujoy Ghosh, the Kahaani guy), added two touches that bring it to a whole different level. First, a gender flip. And second, a thematic Mahabharat connection.

In the original, Taapsee’s part is played by a man and Amitabh’s by a woman. Making the lead character a woman changes everything. Taapsee, for most of the film, is playing the “damsel in distress”. She doesn’t want to do any of this, but she is overruled by her powerful lover, she is worried about hurting her family, she is torn by her sensitive soul. And Amrita is playing another standard Indian female icon, the avenging female, the Kali figure, the lonely noble fighter for her children. But, see, neither of them is true!

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And they are obviously not true. Taapsee plays that she was not the one in control of her relationship, that she was tricked and trapped and so on. But she is a powerful woman while her boyfriend is an art photographer. She is the one who faked evidence of a Paris trip to cover her tracks, who started an affair despite having a husband and daughter at home, who is the one that actual drove the car into a lake while it was her lover who coincidentally ended up spending time with the parents. You even see little things like how she interacts with her lawyer Manav, he is a man, but she is the one in control in all ways while he is helpless with her. If you remove the gender blinders, it is Taapsee who is more culpable, who is in control, who is less likely to feel guilt. It is her poor photographer lover, who never did anything to cover his tracks and who spent more time with Amrita than she did, who will clearly be over-whelmed with guilt and want to do the right thing.

In the same way, we first meet Amrita with her loving husband. He is disposed of with a brief comment about being “ill” and she is presented as a lone fighter for her son from then on. But, how blind can we be? Why do we just assume that a woman must be pursuing vengeance on her own? That a father will be less upset and less obsessed over the death of his son, that a husband wouldn’t support his wife? It’s using our own assumptions against us, that the mother becomes the avenging Goddess while the father fades away in this situation.

It’s that slight of hand on the audience that elevates this film to a higher level. It was already well-made and clear and clever, little things like Taapsee greeting Amitabh with “I was expecting you later” that tie back at the end in a neat way. It will definitely reward a second viewing now that you know the twist. But puncturing our gender assumptions, that is what makes it special, setting it up as the fragile woman being pressured by the avenging mother, and then flipping it to be the avenging father pressuring the cold-blooded murderer woman. This is what thrillers and noir are supposed to be about, revealing the underside of society, including the society that is watching this film.

And then there is the Mahabharata. Amitabh brings it up early in their conversation, saying he will be like the blind king Dhritarashtra and his faithful guide Sanjay, whatever Taapsee tells him is what he will believe. Taapsee responds by saying she knows the “basic storyline” but is unfamiliar with the details, which makes Amitabh laugh. Because the Mahabharata has no “basic storyline”, it is all in the details, it is a massive epic with many stories woven together. And right away an Indian audience is told to pay attention and focus, because this film is not going to go in a straight line. Like the Mahabharata, there are many views on everything that happened, many people who think they are right and could be right, from their own perspective.

It comes up again and again as they talk, finally with Taapsee saying something about how revenge is what the Mahabharata is all about, the Kauravas taking vengeance. And Amitabh corrects her. It wasn’t the Kauravas, it was Draupadi’s vengeance that drove it all. It’s pointing to one small lesson of the epic, that Draupadi had the greater anger and the greater viciousness than all her husbands, swearing to bath her hair in the blood of her enemies. And it is a reminder to the audience that women can have a cold anger and vengeance that men do not. And if you go into it deeper, it is also a reminder that women can control men as they needed to, as Draupadi convinced Bhima to carry out her desires. A foreshadowing that both women, Taapsee and Amrita, controlled the situations they were in and had male assistants (Taapsee her lover, Amrita her husband Amitabh), were not controlled by the men around them, or alone in their desires.

That is what makes this film more than just a clever thriller. It ties itself to the basic Indian philosophy and succeeds in making it relevant. Draupadi’s anger and vengeance was greater than the men around her, and the Kauravas misunderstanding and disrespect of her, seeing her as “just” a woman rather than a powerful person in her own right, is what lead to their downfall. The world is not how we wish it to be, it is how it is, and not seeing things correctly is what can destroy you.

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Draupadi is not simply some woman they can drag forward and molest without consequences. They did something wrong, but also something foolish, refusing to see that she had power greater than or equal to her husbands.
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14 thoughts on “Badla Review (SPOILERS): All About the Mahabharata (do not read this review if you can possibly see the movie, really you will regret it, save yourself)

  1. Just watched Badla last night. I enjoyed the actors, the camera work, editing, direction. Recommended viewing.

    The scene where we first meet Amrita and husband was interesting. She said they are professional theater actors, that they acted in 12 Angry Men. They are essentially telling the audience that this movie is going to play out in a 12AM format, I.e. replaying the same scenes multiple times, with different people having different roles and motives with each replay. And in case you didn’t catch it the first time, we see a large poster of 12AM once we enter their home for the first time. The movie is literally screaming “this will be a 12AM format movie” by this point. OK we get it! But iirc they don’t start replaying scenes until after intermission, and by that time you might have forgotten the 12AM note-to-audience… So, well played!

    And being theater actors vs film actors is salient because theater actors are thought to have more DIY experience, like doing their own hair and makeup, and they would have had a higher % of roles in their career requiring wigs and masks. Plus acting to a live upclose audience without breaking character, vs film actors acting to a set of cameras and a crew who knows they are acting, telegraphs that they can and will comfortably carry out a deceit in their real world (and to us IRL too), even one on one vs unsuspecting ppl.

    Finally, and most significantly, Amrita says she was in 12AM, but then her almost out of view husband comes from behind to say she always talks about being in 12AM but he was in it too, and in fact he’s the one who won an acting award for 12AM. Which she then acknowledges. So right there the movie is telling us that we will focus on Amrita, but the main actor in the deceit will actually be her husband, coming from behind, out of view till the end, winning the award as it were with the final reveal. And that he has the chops to pull this off because he’s won an award for it.

    If you are the kind of viewer who watches many mystery thrillers, the main fail would be the casting choices. By casting amrita singh, along with tapsee and amitabh, it means amrita’s HB is the only unknown actor among the four, which means he’s going to be the key player in the final outcome (reverse psych). Whereas if amrita character was played by a relative unknown also, then the outcome would not be as easy to surmise, as either character – or both or neither – could be key. Also, that amrita is a known actress made me surmise that at minimum, amitabh was working for amrita, whereas with her played by an unknown actor, I might have instead suspected that amitabh had independent motives or worked for law enforcement somehow. Finally, the whole speaking cast was 3 stars, 1 actor with a recent role (tumhari sulu hb), 2 white actors, and 2 unknown actors, one of whom was dead from the start. White actors in Indian film are never villains nor masterminds, unless they are The British in a historical film. And If manav kaul was going to be endgame, then he would have had more exposure throughout the film, else it would be like a bad episode of Law and Order, where we have never even heard of the suspect till the final reveal. So this means that Amrita HB is end game, and since he’s the father of the dead boy, it’s more likely that he catches or kills the killer, rather than be the killer himself.

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    • I had a different theory with the husband, since he was an unknown actor compared to the other leads and Taapsee never actually met him (plus he was explained as becoming ill and therefore never part of the public appearances), I thought the film was just playing a trick on us by putting in a random actor as the husband, and the end reveal would include a quick flash of the previous scenes with Amitabh inserted. Similar to Kahaani. But then, Sujoy Ghosh did already do that with Kahaani, so I guess it makes sense he would try something new and the make-up reveal was great.

      I’d spoiled myself before seeing the film, so I was on the alert for little hints and Easter eggs, and there were so many! I caught the discussion of the husband as an actor, but I missed the significance of 12 Angry Men. There were also soo many nice subtle touches in Amitabh’s performance. When we first see him, he is casual, joking to himself about how he “must be nuts”. But as soon as he is with Taapsee, his demeanor shifts slightly and he becomes more confident and formal. We are seeing the disappearance of the friendly hotel clerk that he is naturally and the appearance of his “performance” as a lawyer.

      Maybe the flaw you saw with the husband’s casting tipping the hand a bit was why they made his look so distinctive? They couldn’t have cast a significant actor in such a small role, but by giving him the bald head and deep voice (maybe Amitabh’s voice?) they gave him a presence that was close to Amrita’s even without the stardom.

      I thought they did a reasonably good job of making Amrita a possible endgame villain herself. Unless you had noticed the little things that didn’t line up, the flaws in Taapsee’s story that make her appear less innocent than she is claiming, or just wondered why we are spending so long on this conversation if it is just to solve a locked room mystery. Maybe another possible ending could have been leading to Amrita blowing them up or something from across the street. The lawyer on his last case killing himself by proxy, something like that.

      On Mon, Mar 11, 2019 at 3:15 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I think Amrita was the right amount of famous and not famous. Right now most people (certainly the youngsters in the audience I saw it with only know her as Sara’s mom. But we all know she is an accomplished actress. I think this plays well on the “you think you know me cause my daughter is now famous but really I am important in my own right” trope which is true for the character. I guessed that Amitabh was working for Amrita, but I DID NOT GUESS he was the husband until we saw her across the street. My mom was an avid mystery reader and she always said that in a brilliant mystery all the clues are there for the reader, they just have to be found. Do you think that is true here?

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    • I do think that is the case here, I spoiled myself going in so I was looking for clues. There’s lots of clever little things, like Amitabh showing up earlier than expected. Or setting a timer on his phone as though he is being paid by the hour but really so he can leave before the “real” lawyer arrives. Or how manages to borrow Taapsee’s phone, asking to speak to the lawyer after she is done, and then there are no more calls after that (because he turned it off). And there are a lot of times when Amitabh knows things he shouldn’t be able to know, and then covers by saying it was research.

      One small clever thing I noticed is that we hear the knocking from the car in the first Taapsee flashback. And then she says it was the sound of a twig snapping. I thought to myself “gosh, that foley work was terrible! That’s not what a twig sounds like at all!” But turns out it was actually really clever, they used a different sound and she covered by telling us what it was. There was also the cell phone text that we saw several times and which didn’t really make sense, “I’m going to tell everyone what happened” or something like that. Taapsee tells a story of the blackmailers making her lover give up his phone, and then sending her a message from it, but that is needlessly elaborate and not really logical. Far more reasonable is that her lover sent the message himself, thereby giving her a motive for murder.

      On Wed, Mar 13, 2019 at 3:54 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I did NOT notice that twig snapping as the knocking. Amitabh’s horror when she says she basically buried him alive is so real; it is the recovering from it which is not. He is a master.

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  3. I def did not guess that AB and HB were the same person. So it’s worth rewatching just to observe AB’s detailed masterclass performance.

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  4. I would really like to see a continuation to the flim. She is a smart woman a will definitely get away with it. And may be Shah Ruk Khan can come to her rescue who is at her door… It cannot be a checkmate… She is too smart for the movie to just end

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  5. I am going through your on review after watching it. Well explained.. I was confused while watching the movie..but ur review made it clear. Superb work.keep up

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I couldn’t wait to watch Badla so I watch Contratiempo on Netflix and it was SO GOOD. I feel like watching it again. But yes, I think the idea of casting a woman in the role of accused was brillant, because it hides the truth even more. In the original the culprit tells he was the weak, sensitive one, but it felt fake. I belived him in the beginning but then I said: Ha I knew something was odd here! With the woman it will be different, I think, because we are used to see women as the vulnerable ones,

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    • Oh shoot, if I’d known it was on Netflix I would have tried to watch it first! Oh well, maybe this is a good thing, I got to go into Badla and be surprised by all the details.

      On Thu, Mar 21, 2019 at 5:54 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. HEY CAN U PLS TELL ME WHAT WAS THE THING TAAPSEE WAS SWITCHING ON AT THE TIME WHEN BADAL WAS ABOUT TO START THE CASE….IN THE FIRST SCENE WHERE TAAPSEE WAS SWITCHING ON A THING TIED TO HER LEG

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    • Her ankle monitor, it was telling the audience that she is under house arrest. Amitabh had to fool her guards in order to get in and see her.

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