Nikkhil Advani’s Batla House ends with the words “fighting for India". There’s been a lot of that this year. Fighting against the British, fighting for India (Manikarnika). Fighting for the British – also, apparently, fighting for India (Kesari). Uri: The Surgical Strike, India’s Most Wanted: fighting (terrorism) for India. PM Narendra Modi, Romeo Akbar Walter, Mission Mangal – all fighting selflessly for the country, asking nothing in return.
There’s a puzzling moment in Batla House when ACP Sanjay Kumar (John Abraham) is talking with his superior officer. They’re walking down a corridor arguing when Sanjay’s gaze is arrested by the sight of the national flag being flown. He stares at it in silence for what feels like half a minute. Why do we need this scene? The film has already established Sanjay as an upstanding, by-the-book officer. But in Hindi cinema circa 2019, that isn’t enough. He must be an exemplary patriot too, sent into a trance by the sight of the Tricolour.
Advani’s film, written by Ritesh Shah, is based on the 2008 encounter in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar neighbourhood (identified as Okhla here), in which two young Muslim men were killed and two injured. The police claimed the men were terrorists, and that one of them was responsible for the serial bomb blasts in Delhi a week earlier, in which some 30 people died. But there were also questions: about how two residents of the Batla House flat the terrorists were staying in escaped; why there were torture marks on some of the bodies; and why the one police officer killed in the crossfire wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest.
For the longest time, Batla House entertains these questions. There are even recreations (not unlike Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar) of the encounter from competing perspectives, one of which shows the cops plotting the whole thing. But then Rajesh Sharma shows up in a Suhel Seth wig as the lawyer representing Dilshad (Sahidur Rahman), one of the escapees apprehended, months later, by Sanjay and his men. While going after Sanjay on the stand he makes a flippant remark about the dead cop. And the film turns.
It’s impressive, the speed at which the film goes from this to Sanjay offering a veiled defense of encounter killing, and getting applauded for it. It also identifies – like PM Narendra Modi did – “press and activists" as, if not exactly enemies of the state, sections that don’t have its best interests at heart. In an instant, all pretensions to even-handedness are exploded and we’re treated to the depressing sight of yet another Hindi film arguing for a clampdown on democratic freedoms.
Advani has a way with extended set-pieces: the unsuccessful attempt to apprehend Dilshad in his hometown and the successful one later on near the Nepal border are stretched out and peppered with the little setbacks and improvisations that must mark such operations in real life. As Uri showed earlier this year, there’s a vast audience for slickly made films about Indian victories – and Batla House is, ultimately, about victory. Before they head to court, Sanjay’s wife says to him, “Chalein? Jeetne (Should we go? To win)." They do, but something’s also lost.