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.
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.