Friday Classics: Badlapur, What is a Hero?

After reviewing a bunch of fun light movies, I am going to go super dark all of a sudden. Brace yourself!

This is such a disturbing movie. I was talking about it with moviemavengal/Pardesi soon after it released. This was when she was early in her Indian film career and I was already over a decade in. I found it very disturbing, she did not, and we finally realized that it depended on how familiar you were with Indian film styles and patterns. This film breaks those patterns in a way that is purposefully off-putting, so long as you know what those patterns are usually expected to be. If you don’t know the patterns, if you go into it blind, it is a far easier watch. But then it isn’t supposed to be an easy watch, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s just an odd movie! An odd movie from an odd director who likes making odd movies. And using odd unexpected heroes to do it.

Image result for badlapur poster

I am not a Sriram Raghavan completist, I have to admit. I’ve seen Johnny Gaddar and this movie and Andhadhun, but I haven’t seen Ek Hasina Tha or Agent Vinod. I know about them though! And what I know tells me that they are all very different, but also the same. All of them take a typical handsome charming movie hero type, and then ask “is he really the hero?” But what’s different in Badlapur, unlike the other ones I have watched, is that I actually care about the “hero”. I feel for him, it isn’t just an intellectual exercise when his heroism starts to slip away. And it happens slowly, so slowly. In Johnny Gadar or Andhadhun, almost immediately we see that our hero is a little less “heroic” than he could be. In Badlapur, he is perfect and perfect and perfect and then, very slowly, not.

Badlapur also looks different. While Johnny Gaddar and Andhadhun and (from what I have seen of it) Agent Vinod have a consciously stylized look to it, a falseness that helps the audience keep a distance, Badlapur is brutally real. There is no distance, right from the stressful action filled opening.

In so many ways this is a very well-made film, and yet I cannot bring myself to watch it a second time. Varun Dhawan gives an amazing performance, the best I have seen from him yet. Divya Dutta, Nawazuddin, and Radhike Apte in her star making part, they all do well. Even the music is good, the songs weave into the film without taking you out of it. And I can still remember the original imagery of some of the scenes, like Nawazuddin and Divya talking in the carpentry shop. But the overall result of all this excellence is to create within the viewer a creepy crawling feeling of the world not making sense.

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Varun is introduced as the perfect hero. He is happily giving a pitch at his advertising job, it’s a brilliant idea of a shampoo ad that looks like a sexy woman and then is revealed to be a sexy man. He is smiling and handsome and charming. Meanwhile his pretty young wife and cute son are running errands and get caught up in a flying autorickshaw holding Vinay Pathak and Nawazuddin Siddiqui who just robbed a bank. In the confusion of the chase, the boy and his mother are both killed. Vinay escapes, with the money, but Nawazuddin is caught.

This is tidy, this is familiar, this is clear. Nawazuddin is evil and killed that cute kid and nice woman, Varun is our hero who will go on some kind of exciting personal journey to avenge his family. Fun action movie. But then it kind of goes sideways. Nawazuddin goes to jail and we get to see his prostitute girlfriend Huma Qureshi visit him, his mother, suddenly he becomes a real person instead of just a villain. That isn’t right! The villain should be the villain and the hero should be the hero.

That’s disturbing, but what is really upsetting is when Varun goes to visit Huma after the trial, pays her, and then intimidates and rapes her. Well, he did pay, but she definitely wasn’t into it. And then he tells Nawazuddin he did it when he sees him at the trial. That’s not what a hero should do either, or at least not in this way.

Hindi film is structured so that whatever the hero does is okay and we root for him, and whatever the villain does is bad and we root against him. The specifics of the actions don’t matter, what matters is that the hero does them, or the villain does it, that’s what make it bad or good. In Simmba, our “hero” takes bribes and tricks people, and later murders in cold blood. And it is all “good”, worthy of cheering, because he is the hero. In other movies, the hero seduces the villain’s daughter or sister, beats up random innocent bystanders, lies and tricks and cheats, and it is all okay because he is the “hero”. And if the villain does something as simple as showing up late for his daughter’s wedding, it is wrong and evil because he is the villain.

But in this movie the hero crosses the line, and the film shows us that. This isn’t a funny happy putting a woman in her place kind of thing, like Ajay threatening Tamannah in Himmatwala. It’s filmed dark and scary and we get close ups of Huma’s face, making us relate to her distress. Can we still love our hero after seeing him do this? Can we still love ourselves after rooting for a hero who did this?

And at the same time, we are sympathizing with Nawazuddin. How is that possible? He is the bad person, the one who does bad things, what does it mean if we feel for his situation and want things to be easier for him?

After Nawazuddin is sent to jail, Varun gets on a train and then wanders off it. He has already rejected his family, his job, his past life. And now he gets off the train at a town called “Badlapur” (revenge place). And he stays there, in this shadowy in between place, for years while Nawazuddin is in jail. That is where the film puts the viewer, in this shadowy in between place where no one is wholey good or bad.

Years later, Nawazuddin’s social worker Divya Dutta comes to Varun and asks for help getting Nawazuddin an early release because he is dying. Varun wakes up from his haze, darker and angrier than before. He finds Vinay Pathak through Nawazuddin and kills both Vinay and his innocent wife Radhike. He seduces Divya Dutta just to get information from her and then leaves her behind. And meanwhile, Nawazuddin is calm and at peace. He finds Huma again and has a sad conversation with her about what might have been. He tracks down Varun and offers himself to him, a sacrifice to his vengeance, and Varun can’t do it. Once the two of them are in the same space, for the first time since the trial, Varun is awake to what he has become, that the hero and villain have traded places.

And so we reach our ending. Nawazuddin offers to go to jail in Varun’s place, take responsibility for Vinay and Radhike’s deaths so Varun can start over and finally leave “Badlapur”. It feels tidy, simple, clean.

But it isn’t. Even that ending is an illusion. Nawazuddin is taking on Varun’s guilt so that he can start fresh. But it is not just about Nawazuddin and Varun. Varun hurt Divya and Radhike and Yami, they did not agree to this deal. And Nawazuddin didn’t just kill Varun’s wife, he killed a daughter and a sister as well. Her family didn’t ask for this vengeance or give permission for it to end. Even at the end, Sriram left a little bit of grit there to irritate us, a moment to make us question the hero-villain dynamic in a new way. The hero and villain have traded places, every man has both a hero and a villain within them, that we can accept. But is the very concept of “hero” and “villain”, of this dispute being ultimately between the two men, also wrong? Is this ending so tidy and perfect after all, is it just one more layer of illusion?

Anyway, all of these big unpleasant thoughts are why I haven’t re-watched this movie.

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18 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Badlapur, What is a Hero?

  1. Have you reviewed Badlapur before? I really liked Badlapur more on my second watch and that was over two years ago. This is one of those movies that I notice more details with every viewing.

    You kept referring to Huma Qureshi as either Yami or Humi. Yami Gautam is the actress that played Varun’s wife.

    I don’t know how accurate this is but I remember seeing somewhere that change is another meaning for the word badla. I thought this made sense since everytime a character was shown at the station, they were going through some kind of change in their life.

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  2. Yup this is one of those movies like UGLY, even when you know the movie is great you cannot mister up the courage to take a second view.

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  3. I sort if grit my teeth and watched it—the worst part was the Vinay and Radhike part. But I thought about it for days afterward and came to the conclusion that it’s a great film that makes us rethink the whole revenge drama genre. I read a comment on the Internet that stuck with me: Varun’s wife and child are killed by accident during a robbery, so Varun is the only person in the movie who kills someone on purpose.

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    • Yes, Varun is the real monster. And yet at the end, he is “forgiven” and given a second chance. Does he deserve it? Is this the final proof of Nawazuddin’s virtue, that he is sacrificing himself for no reason?

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  4. Nawaz’s prostitute girlfriend Yami Gautham? That was Huma Qureshi…

    PS: I wished that Yami survives till the end in her films where she plays a romantic interest of the hero, and always the filmmakers do the otherwise.

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  5. I kind of wonder what sort of a life Varun will have after he takes the second chance offered by Nawazzuddin.It’s the point, which is kind of glossed over in all the revenge movies like Agneepath. If you survive after exacting heinous acts in the name of revenge, what are you supposed to do with the rest of your life? In Kucche Dhaage the director addresses it a couple of times.Vinod Khanna was born and bred to be a dacoit and take revenge for his father’s betrayal.Which he accomplishes fairly early in the movie.And then goes on committing other crimes including raping women.On being remonstrated by a dacoit friend, Vinod replies that he’s just marking time till his death and he needs something to occupy his time.His arch rival Kabir Bedi himself reinstates this.Vinod’s purpose in life was to avenge his father’s death and now he’ll just have to die.When his own mother Nirupa Roy repudiates him,Vinod tells that she created this monster from an innocent child and he just took it one step further.Which is probably why in most revenge dramas, the hero dies at the end.There’s just no way such a monster can be rehabilitated.
    Oh yes, and Varun’s family and friends have to carry a part of the blame too.Surely they could see him shutting out everyone.Everybody gave up on him after a while.Which is a tragedy, too.

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    • This is why Sholay is so brilliant, showing Thakur Sahib sobbing after killing Gabbar, a broken man. The revenge dreams kept him going, but now he has nothing.

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      • Sholay is overrated in my opinion.(I would be scalped for voicing this anywhere north of the Vindhyas for this piece of blasphemy). The Thakur didn’t cross any lines which a thousand Hindi film heroes before him haven’t crossed.I can totally see him running a school or perhaps a rehabilitation centre for reformed criminals.But I really can’t see any ray of hope for Varun.He really crossed the line with Huma.He’s irredeemable in my book.The kindest (and the neatest) thing to do would have been to let him die.

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        • I wonder if that is why he lived? One last time, Sriram was denying us the simple ending. Nawazuddin forgave and helped him, but should he have done that?

          On Sat, May 4, 2019 at 10:32 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

          >

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          • I think they purposely had him live to draw attention to the fact that revenge won’t solve anything in addition to pointing out the whole hypocrisy of revenge in general. He completed his revenge but he’s no better of than he was before and has become even more of a monster than Nawazuddin.

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  6. Though overall I felt like this film lacked some sort of extra something to really draw me in and overall I found this film kind of meh despite the great performances, I still found the entire concept where they completely flip the whole hero/villain dynamic fascinating. At the very beginning we see Nawazuddin do one terrible act under pressure when he kills Varun’s family but not long after we see Varun commit a heinous act and continue to do so in cold blood while we mainly see Nawazuddin be victimized. Varun’s character is blind to all of the crime and damage he is committing all because he’s doing it in the name of “revenge” and thinks his actions are justified (when they’re really not in my opinion). And it feels like an injustice when his character is given a second chance at the end because he ended up becoming the biggest monster out of everyone. I was really impressed with Varun’s performance in this especially from a physical acting perspective. One scene that stood out to me in particular was the bit where he was mourning his family during Jeena Jeena. I’ve decided he was beyond forgiveness right from the moment he raped Huma yet for that moment I was able to completely empathize with him. Also the scene where he picked up Radhika in his car was another standout moment for me mainly because of how terrified I was the entire time. I totally forgot his star persona in this film. It’s like he’s a completely different in actor.

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  7. Though overall I felt like this film lacked some sort of extra something to really draw me in and overall I found this film kind of meh despite the great performances, I still found the entire concept where they completely flip the whole hero/villain dynamic fascinating. At the very beginning we see Nawazuddin do one terrible act under pressure when he kills Varun’s family but not long after we see Varun commit a heinous act and continue to do so in cold blood while we mainly see Nawazuddin be victimized. Varun’s character is blind to all of the crime and damage he is committing all because he’s doing it in the name of “revenge” and thinks his actions are justified (when they’re really not in my opinion). And it feels like an injustice when his character is given a second chance at the end because he ended up becoming the biggest monster out of everyone. I was really impressed with Varun’s performance in this especially from a physical acting perspective. One scene that stood out to me in particular was the bit where he was mourning his family during Jeena Jeena. I’ve decided he was beyond forgiveness right from the moment he raped Huma yet for that moment I was able to completely empathize with him. Also the scene where he picked up Radhika in his car was another standout moment for me mainly because of how terrified I was the entire time. I totally forgot his star persona in this film. It’s like he’s a completely different in actor.

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    • Yes! Varun’s performance is amazing. And it was perfect casting, because he has to be that charming boyish familiar hero type in the opening, adding another level of disturbance as we watch him go dark. And in the same way, Nawazuddin had to be someone known as more of a dangerous off-beat character actor. We start out, as an audience, thinking we know where we are. And then Varun changes his character, an his whole performing style, from the charming half smile young hero type to the realistic subtle dark mature person. Nawazuddin’s role is easier, because he stays in the same acting key through out, he never changes to be a typical “hero” type.

      Maybe that is another level to the ending? Nawazuddin can’t see himself as the hero, he is the low class darkskinned uneducated petty criminal, Varun (despite what he has done) is still “better” and deserves a second chance that Nawazuddin didn’t get.

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