Sunday Rerun: Badla, the Best Thriller of 2019

Badla! Surprisingly solid little movie. Not groundbreaking, but well-made! Worth remembering as part of 2019

Thank goodness for Amitabh. At least 50% of this movie is a a one on one conversation in the same set. A conversation that needs to be calm and undramatic and factual in order for the film to work. You need someone like Amitabh to make that work, not for his charisma and sex appeal and all that, but his pure acting brilliance and experience . To be able to keep us interested and focused without ever going into melodrama, without ever seeming like he is trying to entertain us. Naseeruddin Shah could have done it, Irrfan Khan could have done it probably (he’s good, but is he that good?), Dharmendra could have done it a few years back (have you seen Johnny Gaddar? He’s amazing). But it is the kind of performance it takes literally decades to build up to and perfect, you have to be lucky enough to find a brilliant actor who has had a 40 year career and is still not ready to slow down. So, Amitabh.

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And then there’s Amrita Singh. I am loving her second act, taking all those juicy juicy older woman parts that are a little more than mothers. Her character has to be aggressively average, and yet memorable. A tricky balance to pull off. Amrita does it, dresses herself down completely, turns herself into a dowdy older British housewife, but keeps the snap in her eyes and the confidence in her stare that make her memorable, just like when she was young.

Taapsee is the final piece of the star puzzle. I feel bad for her, she is stuck aggressively underplaying for all but 5 minutes of the film. But she does her job, and she makes the most of those 5 minutes when she has more to do. It’s just kind of a thankless job, stuck alternating between sharing screen space with Amitabh, and playing the whimpering damsel in distress in flashback. But on the other hand, she gets loads of screentime, more than anyone else including Amitabh, and I appreciate that they cast a talented actress who has earned this chance in a role that could have been played by anyone. Speaking of nepotism, every single cast member in this film came into the movies as an outsider! That’s something, huh?Paragraph

The main three roles are the most important part of the film, everything builds off of those performances, but the rest of the movie is great. As for the rest of the cast, it’s a nice mixture of British and Indian actors, none of them super famous, none of them newcomers. Manav Kaul was the only one I really recognized, thanks to Tumhari Sulu, and he did an expectedly good job with his smallish role. The filming is top notch, cinematographer is perfect, editing is low-key fancy (lots of little edits like showing a handbag slam on a table and then a chair pull out), background music is invisible, it’s all beautiful. The script is good too, although I’m not sure how much credit to give it since it is a remake. There are some nice Indian touches, the way the Mahabharata is woven in and out for instance, and there is a gender message that is flipped into it in a really interesting way with the recasting. Plus, of course, Amitabh. Really, I cannot imagine any other actor bringing the pathos and depth to this purposefully calm and unemotional performance.


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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.

Image result for badla poster

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.

13 thoughts on “Sunday Rerun: Badla, the Best Thriller of 2019

  1. Here to chime in with a comparison to Contratiempo, which I watched after I read this adaptation was happening. I watched the two versions a good year apart and it struck me that with Badla they really did succeed in making this feel like an Indian production – the casting was great, the slight change in location worked, the added references to the Mahabharata you pointed out, delivered by Amitabh, gave it shades the original didn’t have. Being spoiled on the plot, it made me focus on the actors more. Really enjoyed seeing Amrita in this role. The gender flip was an interesting choice. The original works too because it sets the murder up as an obvious case, then causes you to question everything, then brings it back around, with the final twist that the seasoned woman attorney (Amitabh’s role) is the first victim’s aunt, sister of the father (Amrita here) who has been pursuing justice. It plays on different tropes and audience assumptions. But I liked seeing Taapsee as the gray unreliable character.

    Agree that Amitabh’s performance carried the film, he balances disarming and avuncular with flashes of sharp intelligence. You’re supposed to start off feeling sympathy for Taapsee, and their dynamic sets this up well…then shifts as you learn to see her as unreliable. One difference with the Spanish version, probably partly due to the gender flip, they toned down some of the borderline sexual energy the Spanish pair had during the confrontations, the level between the guy and the lawyer got more angry and explosive. I didn’t miss the yelling, but I do think Taapsee played it a bit too cool. I would have liked to see more emotional dynamics as the twists unfold.

    With all of those differences, when I went back and fast-forwarded through Contratiempo after watching Badla, I was surprised to see it’s really a scene by scene remake. There were a few small tweaks (very small) to the script that made it tighter, but even the dialogue is pretty close to the original. (At least based on the English subtitles of the Hindi.)

    Side note: curious how this deal was brokered. It looks like Azure bought rights from Atresmedia, then Red Chillies came on board later. But Atresmedia (Money Heist) and Red Chillies both have such strong ties to Netflix, hard to believe that had no part in it.

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    • P.S. Wikipedia says Contratiempo had a $4.5 million budget and grossed $30.5 million worldwide, while Badla had a $1.4 million budget and grossed $19 million. Do you think those numbers are reliable? I guess I was surprised, I think of the Indian industry as being so much bigger than Spain’s.

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      • Aha! Down in the fine print, wikipedia says that the Spanish version had a Chinese release, thus the large money.

        On Sun, Jan 12, 2020 at 10:17 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Thank you! Fascinating. There is a particular skill in making these scene by scene remakes, while still subtly changing them to match with the culture of the new location. In some ways it is harder than throwing everything out and starting clean slate. And it is definitely harder than doing a scene by scene without changing anything.

      In the original, there is no make-up and acting reveal? Or is there? Is the lawyer really a lawyer?

      It is interesting that the two production houses both have a Netflix connection. Could be as simple as someone at Red Chillies seeing Contratiempo on Netflix and exploring who already owned the rights? Or Azure came to Shahrukh because they knew of his Netflix connection?

      On Sun, Jan 12, 2020 at 10:05 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Oops, sorry. She’s the wife/mother, not the aunt, I was wrong. So same same. And yes, same reveal at the end but the lawyer and mother are played by the same actress. Who even has a slight resemblance to Amrita, same styling anyway.

        The deal could totally have been a simple thing. Though part of me wonders if part of having a good deal with Netflix is getting access to data about which movies of the kinds that interest you are doing well. Contratiempo released on Netflix 7/1/17, Badla got underway sometime in early to mid 2018? Curious about Azure’s role too, though, they’re clearly very active in snapping up rights for remakes.

        https://www.google.com/amp/s/variety.com/2018/film/news/lionsgate-india-azure-remake-instructions-not-included-the-terror-live-1202800871/amp/

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        • I’m curious Azure as well! The whole “rights” idea is really new, like within the past 15 years. I remember there was a big deal made when Karan bought the rights to “Pretty Woman” for Kal Ho Na Ho because it was so unheard of. I assume there is some legal change underpinning everything? Maybe (just spitballing) if there was a legal change of that type, Azure has started buying up rights ASAP in hopes that they can sell the idea to some other production house. Like, buy the rights to 20 movies and hope they can sell 2 of them?

          On Mon, Jan 13, 2020 at 10:54 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • They do seem to be snapping up rights strategically, hopefully it’s with a more proactive purpose than just sitting on them until someone comes calling. They seem to actively produce adaptations at a good clip anyway, so that’s promising.

            Re: what changed, according to this article I found when I was trying to dig up more info on the Badla deal, Bollywood just didn’t used to ask for permission. It’s a US industry source, so I don’t know how fair that is. Does fit in with your narrative of when things got more sewn up and businesslike though.

            https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/official-bollywood-is-done-unauthorized-741589

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          • Oh, this is triggering my memory of what was the first high profile case! It was a really REALLY stupid one. Paa was sued as an unauthorized remake of Benjamin Button. Which it isn’t. And also Benjamin Button the short story was out of copyright. But it kind of put the Indian industry on alert that these rights cases would be respected now, Hollywood was gonna file suit and the Indian courts were gonna uphold it.

            not so coincidentally, around that same time the Hollywood studios started heavily buying into Indian film, starting with Sony and Saawariya in 2008.

            There’s a bit of a PR advantage also that is new, now that the audience is increasingly aware of Hollywood films saying you are a remake of a successful Hollywood production actually gives you something, unlike before when the audience wouldn’t know about these movies anyway so saying “it’s a remake of a Tom Cruise film Knight and Day” would do nothing.

            On Tue, Jan 14, 2020 at 6:11 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Oh, and to the “didn’t ask for permissions” route, Salman made a remake of Cactus flower as recently as 2005. Definitely completely had the same storyline, not a shot for shot but more than just “inspired by”. And they didn’t promote it as a remake, nor did anyone bother buying the rights. They used to make remakes like that all the time, funky little films that most people didn’t even know about and Hollywood wasn’t going to notice.

            It still happens, especially with the Bhatts, they will do almost scene by scene remakes. But cheap lightly promoted movies that are remaking older Hollywood hits and no one notices.

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          • Huh. This is making me wonder what you get with official adaptation rights in film. In the case of Badla, it’s clear, they could take as much of the original’s styling, shooting, editing, and dialogue as they wanted with no concerns about getting into a legal mess. But I wonder if they even got access to any specs or technical details as part of the deal. I’m not sure what qualifies as protected creative expression, aside from the words as written in the script. Story concepts aren’t copyrightable. Theoretically, you could get pretty close to a story without actually doing anything illegal. So playing by the rules must have something to do with being more integrated into the international market and industry too, wanting to participate in the exchange of ideas and opportunities and generally stay on good terms.

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          • Oh that’s interesting! I suppose if you have the shooting script, depending on how much the director liked to plan in advance, you could have kind of an instruction manual for how to shoot every scene.

            On Thu, Jan 16, 2020 at 12:47 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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