By Poulomi Das
At one point in Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla, Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan), the defence attorney hired to represent Naina Sethi (Taapsee Pannu), a married entrepreneur accused of murder, mocks the unrealistic scenarios conjured up by his client. “Tumhare kahaani mein jisko jo karna hota hai woh naye naye cheezein aise hi seekh jaata hai,” Badal tells Naina, as if bemoaning the death of logic at the altar of plot twists in every crime thriller.
It’s a delightful meta-moment where Badal behaves like a stand-in for the audience and refuses to buy Naina’s story, which involves her lover – a photographer – waking up as a “bank system expert” one fine day. But what makes the moment even more amusing is that it’s also the stand that explains Badla. Its plot takes multiple sensational detours but ends with circling back to the most obvious – and logical – explanation, albeit with a dose of disbelief.
Adapted from Orio Paulo’s The Invisible Guest, a 2016 Spanish crime thriller, Badla (Paulo is credited for the story) begins when an injured Naina is found locked in a hotel room with Arjun, her dead lover. Because there are no forced signs of entry or any possible way to get out of that locked room, Naina is accused and arrested, although she insists on her innocence. The responsibility of uncovering the truth and acquitting Naina then, falls on Badal Gupta, who is reputed for never losing a case. As Naina and Badal piece together the events that led to Arjun’s (newcomer Tony Luke) death, a tale of deceit, double murders, and revenge emerges.
Much of the straightforward Badla unfolds in the living room of an apartment where Naina is holed up after being out on bail – a filmmaking decision that usually relies heavily on actors to build and sustain suspense. It’s to Ghosh’s credit that he has Bachchan and Pannu – a formidable pair who share chemistry and history as a lawyer-client couple (PINK) – in the lead roles. Both the actors elevate the intrigue in a way that makes it somewhat difficult to read them. But this is an exception; the rest of the cast hinders Badla from being consistently engrossing: Luke’s accented Hindi is unbelievably distracting and he seems determined to not act; Manav Kaul is wasted in an inconsequential role; while Amrita Singh plays a mother who is more grating than grieving.
It also doesn’t help that Badla’s red herrings – especially, its final reveal – and the directorial style seem eerily reminiscent of Ghosh’s Kahaani. In fact, the film’s Kahaani hangover is its weakest link. Unlike the Vidya Balan-starrer, Badla falls short of being extraordinary or ingenious, solely because of its filmmaking decisions: Some of the dialogues are stitled and clunky, the cast is largely random and unforgettable, and the movie never quite manages to fully sustain the mystery of its unreliable narrator. These don’t just strip much of Badla’scharm, but also guarantee that it can’t be anything more than just a passable thriller.
It’s a shame considering Badla shows promise. Although the film is otherwise a faithful adaptation, Ghosh deviates from the thematic origins of Paulo’s original story by reversing the genders of two significant characters. In The Invisible Guest, the character accused of murder is a man, as is the one exacting revenge. But in Ghosh’s adaptation, both these characters are women. It affords Badla the chance to contextualise a simple tale of revenge into one that resembles the most famous Indian reference for revenge: the Mahabharata. Mythology is generously relied upon in Badla and the arc of one of the main protagonists borrows from that of Draupadi. More importantly, by having two women – who go to unimaginable lengths to prove themselves – face off each other in a crime thriller instead of two men, Ghosh builds a solid case against the assumption of innocence that we often grant women accused of heinous crimes. If only Badla lived up to its intent.