‘Badla’ is an apartment drama. There are two people, an elderly lawyer and a young businesswoman, playing a cat and mouse game across a kitchen table in a flat in Glasgow. The rest of the film is mainly in flashbacks; largely from the perspective of the woman, with a few hypothetical projections thrown in by the man.
A celebrated defence attorney called Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) rings the door bell at a well appointed apartment, and when a young woman answers it, apologies for being early, and asks if he should wait outside. Naina (Taapsee Pannu) says no, he can come in because she was expecting him anyway. They then discuss the details of the case, for which he has been hired. Apparently, Naina has been charged with murdering her lover, and is out on bail.
Badal is an expert at preparing witnesses to face the prosecution. He hasn’t lost a case in years. He is about to retire, but has been persuaded to take this one last brief. It will be his final assignment. He wants to go out with his reputation intact, and tells Naina that he will not be able to ready her for questioning, unless she tells him every single thing, absolutely truthfully.
She starts telling her story, but leaves crucial links untold, until prompted by her sharp listener, who, clearly, has done his homework on the case. Every episode of Naina’s narrative is a flashback, with a definitive point of view. But some parts of her story inadvertently contradict each other, until sorted out by Badal. He tells her that what the prosecution is looking for are contradictions in the report of a witness. By his several interjections into her story, what he is doing is ironing out the wrinkles in her tale, so that she will not be called out on the witness stand.
Director Sujoy Ghosh uses the ‘Rashomon Effect’, sometimes called the ‘Rashomon Principle’, to set up his thriller. Named after Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, ‘Rashomon’, the effect is defined academically as an epistemological framework to describe ways of re-creating an event that has no hard evidence, and depends entirely on human memory, perspective, and the social conditioning of the teller in order to exist. At every juncture in this movie, when Naina comes to a judgemental conclusion on aspects of her narrative, Badal thumps the table and says no, he wants facts, hard facts, not a point of view. The truth, he says, is irrelevant to a legal judgement; he needs a story that will stand up to the scrutiny of human logic. That is the only way he can defend her; the only way, in fact, that court cases are won.
The intertwining of the objective and the subjective in the telling of a series of events that no one alive, except the narrator, has actually seen, is an interesting idea and keeps you watching. Particularly curious is how Naina describes what her dead lover (Tony Luke) saw and did. It is a post mortem perspective, a play within a play, a mousetrap, towards which, oddly enough, the defence attorney does not show much of his usual skepticism. He appears more interested in cartography. He keeps showing her a map and asking her to mark it.
In a film with Indian people, set in Scotland, one must add ‘cultural adjustment’ to the subjective aspects of an eye witness account. ‘Badla’ is an official remake of a Spanish language film set in Spain, called ’The Invisible Guest’. Some of the proactive steps taken by a third angle in the Indian version (Amrita Singh) do not quite fit the profile of a typical Indian expatriate in Scotland. On the other hand, perhaps she is simply atypical.
The pacing of the film is good and there is one lovely sound edit, when Naina is in a car in one of the flashbacks. You hear Badal’s disembodied voice asking her a question, and she responds by turning around to look at the back seat. The next cut is reversed to the apartment, with Badal leaning forward, questioning her. It is a nicely edited movie, and despite half of it being set in one room, does not make you feel claustrophobic.
However, as a thriller, the movie is not entirely convincing. In fact, you can figure out a solution three quarters of the way through. Part of the reason is the smoothness of the defence attorney. He has everything at his finger tips, and seems to anticipate all Naina’s answers to a tee. A little hesitancy on the part of this legendary actor might have been more compelling.
In short, ‘Badla’ has a great cast and a nice look. But it does not intrigue.