Nikhil Advani's “Batla House”, Bollywood's take on an incident in which three men were killed in a police raid in the Indian capital in September 2008, may as well have been titled “In defense of the Delhi Police”.
The film is told from the point of view of Sanjay Kumar (John Abraham), a character based on Sanjeev Kumar Yadav. He was the head of the police team that raided a cramped flat in Delhi's Batla House and opened fire on five men, accused of having links to the Indian Mujahideen. Two suspects and a police officer were killed.
Several political parties and human rights organizations accused the Delhi police of faking the encounter, alleging that the men were innocent and that they had been tortured and killed by the police.
“Batla House” charts the events following the raid, as Kumar struggles to rebuild the tarnished reputation of his team. Traumatized by the encounter and the loss of his fellow officer, Sanjay struggles to function. He drifts apart from his news-anchor wife (Mrunal Thakur) and is forced to deal with political leaders who don’t care about nabbing the culprits.
Kumar tracks down one of the two suspects who escaped the raid and tries to piece together the events leading to the encounter, even as the media castigates the police. There are references to protests by human-rights organizations alleging a fake encounter, but it is clear the film doesn’t take these protests seriously.
Director Advani and writer Ritesh Shah leave gaps in their telling, focusing more on Kumar and his trauma. The director's unwillingness to question the ethical practices of the Indian police makes “Batla House” a one-sided story.
After years of practice of playing tortured police officers, John Abraham seems to have found his comfort zone. He brings strength and, at times, a sense of disquiet to his role. It is an improvement over earlier wooden performances. In contrast, Mrunal Thakur’s stony-faced and awkward performance makes her small role even more inconsequential. The subplot of the pair’s crumbling marriage, complete with a maudlin background score and emotional dialogue, weighs the film down.
What transpired at Batla House remains unclear, and Indian courts continue to hear cases linked to the encounter to this day. As far as this film is concerned, there is no room for debate. In true Bollywood tradition, “Batla House” chooses to hide its grays under black and white.
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(Editing By Blassy Boben and Robert MacMillan)