August 15, 2019
John Abraham, Mrunal Thakur, Ravi Kishan, Amit Verma, Amit Jairath, Manish Chaudhary, Pramod Pathak, Nora Fatehi, Rajesh Sharma
When the hero of Kabir Khan’s empathetic and thoughtful albeit flawed New York (2009), chooses to become a vehicle not just for Islamophobia but also for a ruling party’s PR, you know how far gone we are as a country down a road of ji huzoori.
John Abraham may not be one of the Khan trio or Akshay Kumar or Hrithik Roshan, but in his own quiet beaver-like way he has earned his star wattage. He has also been a pioneer of matters rarely given the weightage they deserve in the public discourse on cinema. In the era Before Abraham, it was generally assumed that women in the Hindi film audience lack hormones. Sure, it was understood that female fans would weep and go bonkers over good-looking heroes, but that phenomenon was usually discussed in a patronising tone about giggly girly silliness and never as an overt acknowledgement of the female viewers’ sexuality. Then Abraham came along in 2003 and merrily took on the post of poster boy for male bare-chestedness, publicly spoke of how much he enjoyed being objectified by women, went so far as to strip down to microscopic yellow swimming trunks for Dostana in 2008, and voluntarily got hosed down while topless by a bunch of gorgeous women in his production debut, Vicky Donor (2012), with no contextual backing in the script as if to snub his nose at his industry and society’s assumption till then that being objectified is the job of glamorous women alone.
With his body builder’s physique, Abraham fit the socially accepted definition of masculinity in a patriarchal world. Yet with Dostana he was snubbing his nose at whoever came up with that definition too, by choosing to play a chap pretending to be gay in a film in which a conservative Indian mother gave her blessing to her son who she believed to be gay and his relationship with the man she believed was his partner (Abraham). Take that, homophobic patriarchy.
He later played a stripper in Desi Boyz (2011).
When a star who has contested gender stereotypes and questioned sectarian prejudice starts bowing to the establishment, you have to wonder if hope is a candle in the wind that may soon be snuffed out.
Back in 2008, there was an uproar following these deaths. Some political parties, representatives of the Muslim community and human rights activists had alleged that it was a fake encounter engineered by the police who were under pressure to show results in their investigation into the recent bomb blasts in the Capital. There was also a theory that M.C. Sharma’s death was a result of inter-departmental rivalry and not an encounter – this was touted as the only credible explanation for why he was not wearing a bulletproof vest when reportedly barging into a room with suspected terrorists. Activists even rejected the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report on the case, accusing the NHRC of not conducting its own independent investigation into the matter but relying entirely on the official police version of events. The police have consistently denied all charges, but they have yet to subside.
There is a case to be made for a film examining all sides of this story, and probing all parties concerned. Such a project would be a risk at all times, of course, but especially today when questioning the ruling BJP’s prescribed line on any matter has become dangerous. And so, Advani plays it safe, standing firmly on the side of the police in the Batla House encounter, othering Muslims inexorably, stereotyping human rights activists, journalists who look below the surface and defence lawyers, and taking a clear position against BJP’s arch rival that was in government at the time of the encounter, the Congress.
Doing all this is apparently not enough. The past 3-5 years have, after all, seen the rise of the deshbhakt hero and heroine whose notion of patriotism conforms 100% to the Sangh Parivar vision and whose roll call of evil never strays an inch from the enemies identified by the ruling party: Pakistan, anti-establishment journalists, Congress, activists, Muslims. Towards this end, the Akshay Kumar-starrer Kesari went so far as to uphold as patriots a Sikh regiment that fought for the British and against Pathan (read: Muslim) freedom fighters in the real-life Battle of Saragarhi in 1897. Why? Because demonising Muslims has always been part of the Sangh Parivar’s agenda and winning Sikh affection has been BJP’s goal since around 2002.
With so many of Team Advani-Abraham’s obsequious colleagues vying for the Sangh/BJP’s attention, Batla House proceeds to lay it on thick by showing the good Hindu hero lecturing a Muslim terror suspect about the “paak kitaab”, same hero who becomes an emotional puddle at the mere sight of the national flag, same hero who sees a nightmarish vision of – literally – being tossed around and engulfed by a skullcap-wearing mob. I kid you not.
The latter visual plays up the prevailing stereotype of the fearsome, violent Muslim, but it is more than that. I cannot remember a more glaring symbolic representation on screen of the long-running Sangh/BJP propaganda that Muslims are multiplying uncontrollably and will soon swamp India’s Hindus.
Batla House does not stop at ideological agreement with the ruling dispensation. The film gives BJP a solid push by adopting the party’s many stances against the Congress. A fictional top honcho in the Home Ministry is shown telling the police not to target people from just one community for terror activities and to “keep a balance”. He is listed as “Home Minister Shivaji Patil” in the rolling credits and is played by Anil Rastogi who bears a strong resemblance to Congress’ Shivraj Patil, the Union Home Minister at the time of the Batla House encounter. This scene propagates the BJP’s line that the Congress foisted false terror cases on Hindus. Later, the Delhi Police’s mundu-wearing boss in the Home Ministry is shown slamming them at a private meeting for standing in the way of his priority, which is to not be seen as anti-minority. Nikkhil Advani may well argue that P. Chidambaram is not the only mundu-wearing neta in Delhi, but oh c’mon, he was the only mundu-wearing Union Home Minister from November 2008 to July 2012, and the character is listed as “Home Minister P.C. Naidu” in the rolling credits. Cellophane paper is less transparent than this.
So without naming the Congress, Batla House makes every effort to remind us that the Congress was heading the Central government at the time. Apart from the above two gentlemen, the reminders come in the form of a placard addressing “Sonia and Rahul” in a protesting crowd, archival footage of the real Digvijay Singh questioning the police’s account of what happened at Batla House, footage of the real Salman Khurshid giving a speech about Sonia Gandhi’s reaction to the episode and so on. All this is juxtaposed against the film’s sympathy for the police alone – the kind, hardworking, sincere police.
The message of Batla House is clear: (1) Muslims play victim to camouflage their crimes (2) Congress supports Muslims whether they are right or wrong (3) human rights activists play along (4) Hindus are victimised (5) the Congress faked cases against Hindus to appease Muslims, blah blah blah. It is a page right out of the Sangh Parivar book.
(Aside: There is a slip-up in the closing text about Sanjay Kumar that appears on screen. Instead of referring to him as “Kumar”, the very last line goes: “Yadav has led more than 70 encounters.” Yadav? John Abraham’s character is not called Yadav even once in the film, so this blooper raises the possibility that the filmmaker originally planned to name his hero Sanjeev Kumar Yadav, but was advised against it since legal proceedings related to the real Batla House encounter are still on. The text writer was either forgetful, confused or plain inefficient.)
The opening disclaimer is a legal compulsion, I get it, but there is also a rather weird mid-film disclaimer during a courtroom scene stating that the film does not intend to take sides – this is an insult to viewer intelligence since by then its bias is screaming out.
Batla House tries to keep itself in the clear by changing the names of most players involved or leaving them unnamed, but the points it wishes to make are trumpeted in multiple ways.
In place of M.C. Sharma who was killed at Batla House, the film features an Inspector K.K. Verma (Ravi Kishan) who reports to ACP Sanjay Kumar (Abraham). We learn right at the start that KK defied Sanjay’s order, which was to investigate the presence of the suspects holed up in Batla House but not confront them. This first half hour or so of Batla House is interesting because it suggests that all versions and angles will be examined. This possibility is particularly intriguing because Sanjay Kumar himself is shown lying to his senior (Manish Chaudhary) that two suspects were killed in the Batla House flat by KK and his team – actually, what we saw before that was Sanjay and his team killing the two suspects when they entered the flat at Batla House after KK is down.
It soon becomes clear though that only one version of events will be given credibility in this narrative: the police’s official version. And so, Sanjay’s lie is forgotten, KK’s defiance is papered over, confusion is intentionally created with Rashomon-style retellings of what must have happened in that building and Sanjay’s decision to cover up for the dead man is presented as a sign of his nobility. And noble he certainly is, a man so bound to his duty that he is willing to sacrifice his marriage for it and is now suffering from PTSD while callous politicians, activists and other terrible people play politics over him.
The extended focus on PTSD in such a mainstream film is unusual for Bollywood, as is the fact that an actor with such a macho image plays a character who seeks therapy. Unfortunately, Batla House’s spotlight on its hero’s mental health is overshadowed by its larger agenda.
The film’s cleverness lies in the fact that it is not as shoddy as another recent propaganda offering, the tacky PM Narendra Modi. Advani’s film is much smarter. It plays mind games with the audience by painting Team Sanjay Kumar as a thoroughly likeable lot with perfectly understandable grouses (who can deny that, generally speaking, well-intentioned police personnel do suffer at the hands of corrupt, manipulative netas?), by not explaining the specifics of the questions raised by activists against the police and NHRC in this particular case, and by not being cartoonish in its contempt for the antagonists.
The manipulation happens at many levels. For instance, anyone other than the police is sketchily written, so that there is no question of the audience being invested in any of them. Muslims are represented either as angry crowds or as terrorists, full stop. The individual who gets most screen time among the police’s critics in Batla House is a lawyer called Shailesh Arya played by Rajesh Sharma – Arya is given a dignified demeanour until the courtroom scenes in which he reveals himself to be an over-the-top and mean fellow, a dimwitted dodo who has barely done any homework and ends up unwittingly proving Sanjay Kumar’s case for him. How can the viewer not admire Sanjay when the opposition is portrayed as being stupid and insensitive? Game won.
Although Abraham's decision to be a part of this venture comes as a surprise, anyone closely following Advani’s filmography should not be taken aback. He began his journey with the iconic romance Kal Ho Naa Ho. This was followed by a series of box-office disasters and critical duds, among them Chandni Chowk to China, Hero starring Sooraj Pancholi and Athiya Shetty, and Katti Batti. He has largely made politically innocuous films, with one exception: D-Day (2013).
While purportedly being a detailed account of an undercover Indian team’s bid to unofficially extradite a wanted terrorist from Pakistan, D-Day broke from its understated tone in the climax when the terrorist in question goes berserk and delivers a long speech about how he knows Indians will do nothing to him beyond take him across the border to offer him their hospitality – this was the language of the right-wing Indian discourse that had already increased in volume by then, the language of the people who manufactured the story that Manmohan Singh’s government fed biryani to Kasab when the populist demand was that criminals, especially terrorists, should be released in a town square where the mob should be left to dispense justice.
What was remarkable about D-Day’s climax was not merely that it was playing to the gallery, but that it was a departure from the muted, ruminative tenor of the rest of the film. It was almost as if the lava had been simmering below the surface, the anger had been festering below the skin until the writers could no longer hold back and they erupted.
Six years later, in an era when people are less inclined to camouflage their true colours, Batla House reunites Advani with one of the writers of D-Day, Ritesh Shah. Surprise!
Abraham pares down his glamourous personality for this role, and is earnest. He does make a concession to his core competency though with two passing shirtless shots.
Mrunal Thakur who was very impressive in last year’s Love Sonia plays Sanjay’s wife in Batla House, reduced to being the proverbial woman-behind-the-man in a virtually all-male show.
Nora Fatehi displays superhuman flexibility and abdominal muscle strength during a song-and-dance appearance with the foot-tapping Saki Saki Re remix.
Ravi Kishan’s craft is challenged somewhat by the various versions of his actions recounted by different parties, giving him the opportunity to display some range unlike the rest of the characters who are all fitted into limited boxes and not given any breathing space.
Batla House has no patience with nuance or debate. The bad are 360 degrees of bad, the good are 360 degrees of good and their evil deeds can all be excused as being for the larger good. So determined is the film to toe the police line, that it trivialises questions about the foolhardiness of a policeman not wearing a bulletproof vest before entering a room in which he believed there were armed terrorists.
In one scene, during a closed-door discussion, Sanjay admits that the police may have done fake encounters and planted weapons on people in the past but they have done so only because the enemy is not straight, because the enemy breaks the law. This stand too dips into the most voluble elements in the public discourse these days advocating anti-democratic methods of law enforcement.
Over the decades, many Hindi films have justified police atrocities with black-and-white accounts of crime and punishment, but Batla House is unique in other ways. In the pre-2000 era, Bollywood favoured a positive stereotyping of Muslims (the shayari-spouting romantic, the golden-hearted tawaif, the kind fakir bringing up the abandoned Hindu child, etc), a stereotyping that liberals largely did not question although positive stereotyping should always be seen as a form of othering, either as over-compensation for the prejudice surrounding the filmmaker in question or as a warning sign that the person is trying to mask their own prejudice. This closeted prejudice has been straining to break out, and finally emerged in full force in the past couple of years with films like Padmaavat, Kesari and Kalank that have trumpeted the Sangh-backed negative stereotype of Muslims.
Batla House goes a step further by openly using the language of “them” and “us” – literally – with regard to Muslims. During his testimony in court, Sanjay Kumar tries to appear balanced by equally deriding unequivocal “himaayat” (support, patronage, protection) and “mukhalfat” (hostility, opposition) towards Muslims – he is not the enemy of boys like the ones caught at Batla House, he tells the judge, the enemy are those who either always support or always oppose “inki qaum” (their community).
Their. They. Them. Versus us. “Inki qaum.” That those two words are spoken by a star who once defied the establishment is heartbreaking.
Rating (out of five stars): *1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Visuals courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/TheRealJohnAbraham/