“Badla” - Sujoy Ghosh (2019)

Badla (“Revenge”, 2019) is a whodunit crime drama directed by Indian filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh.  This film, which has been well received [1], is a remake of the popular Spanish film The Invisible Guest (Contratiempo, 2016) that was written and directed by Oriol Paulo.  But Ghosh, already known for an earlier crime thriller, Kahaani (“Story”, 2012), made some small but perhaps significant changes to Oriol Paulo’s original script when he made Badla.  For one thing, he reversed the genders of two of the main characters, and this seems to me to have been a dramatically effective decision.  In addition, even though Badla has a virtually all-Indian cast, Ghosh set and shot this film in Scotland, a locale that for Indian audiences probably lends a slightly exotic external atmosphere to the film.

The key thing about all whodunit mysteries is that a crime has been committed, and most of the plot is devoted to unravelling just who is the guilty party.  The reader/viewer is presented with all the evidence along the way and is invited to solve the crime him- or herself.  But Badla is not just an ordinary whodunit – it belongs to the popular and tantalizing subgenre known as the “locked-room mystery” [2].  In these kinds of stories, a crime (usually a murder) has been committed inside a room that is known to have been locked from the inside, and the circumstantial evidence either points to a single culprit who was inside the room at the time (often it is the story’s protagonist, who ultimately turns out to be innocent) or leaves everyone in the dark as to how the crime could possibly have been committed.  Early elements of the locked-room mystery can be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), but the idea of a specific genre along these lines reached its heyday a century later with the works of John Dickson Carr [3].
Badla is indeed an exemplar of a locked-room mystery, and a particularly complex one at that.  In this story a young woman awakens from having been knocked unconscious and finds herself in a locked hotel room with a dead body.  She is immediately accused by the police of having murdered this person.  The film’s narrative concerns the woman’s efforts to prove her innocence.
Badla begins with the accused woman, Naina Sethi (played by Taapsee Pannu), having been released on bail, meeting with a famous senior lawyer, Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan), who has reputedly never lost a case and who has been recruited by Naina’s personal attorney, Jimmy Punjabi (Manav Kaul), to prepare her legal defence.  Time is critical – they may have only three hours to prepare Naina for an expected police examination – and before Gupta is willing to take on the case, he wants Naina to tell him everything she knows so that he can get her ready for her upcoming testimony.  The film is then structured around their ensuing conversation of several hours, which features a number of dramatized flashbacks and descriptive accounts which may or may not represent the truth.

In fact truth and lying are central themes of this film, and the viewer must struggle with conflicting and contradictory accounts, all dramatized, of what actually happened over the preceding few days.

We quickly learn that Naina Sethi is a very successful young Glasgow businesswoman and is a supposedly happily married mother of a young child.  But she tells Gupta that she had been having an extramarital love affair with commercial photographer Arjun Joseph (Tony Luke).  Recently, she goes on, she and Arjun had been faced with a blackmail demand from an unknown accuser who threatened to reveal their affair unless he or she was paid a substantial amount of money.  They were instructed to bring the money to a remote hotel room in order to keep their secrets hidden.  But after travelling there and checking into the room, they were both ambushed from behind and knocked out.  When Naina woke up, she discovered Arjun’s dead body on the floor.  When the police came, they found that the hotel room was locked from the inside and no evidence of anyone breaking in.

Naina tells Gupta that what she has just told him is the whole story, but Gupta isn’t buying it.  He thinks she is holding some things back, and we soon see that he is right.  It turns out that Naina and Arjun had also been involved in an auto accident that had resulted in the death of the other driver, and since there had been no witnesses, they had chosen to cover up the evidence.  Over the course of this story, we see various conflicting, dramatized versions of what happened on that occasion.  In addition, we learn that Arjun had by chance happened on to the deceased driver’s parents, Rani Kaur (Amrita Singh) and her husband Nimbi (Tanveer Ghani).  These two elderly characters are also hypothesized to have been involved in various malicious scenarios to avenge their son’s death.

As the viewer watches the conflicting dramatizations of these various accounts told by Naina or suggested by Gupta, it becomes clear that both Naina and Badal Gupta are lying on multiple occasions.  Some of the viewers may struggle to come to a coherent understanding of what actually did happen – and that, after all, is presumably the fun of watching a whodunit.  At the close, there is a surprise ending to the whole thing, and the astute viewer may have picked up enough clues along the way to have accurately predicted the ironic outcome.  You can try your luck.

So the whole of Badla can be considered to have been something of a game between Naina and Gupta, but with deadly stakes.  Naina wants to avoid being convicted of murder and is willing to lie to save herself.  Badal Gupta wants to preserve his loss-free legal case record, and he, too, is apparently willing to lie in order to do it.  But as the viewer will eventually find out, there is something more that is going on here.
Certainly the enjoyment of watching a tale like Badla comes from the telling of it, and I must admit that the telling on this occasion is not always perfect.  Some of the characterizations are a bit weak, and some of the situations are not narratively motivated to a believable degree.  In addition, there are many unmotivated editing cuts, particularly during conversations.  These pointless changes in point of view only distract the viewer from following the narrative flow.
But, on the other hand, I must say that Taapsee Pannu’s performance as Naina Sethi is outstanding.  She realistically delivers a range of subtly expressed emotive responses across the variety of situations in which she is dramatically involved, sometimes as innocent victim and sometimes as willful manipulator.  And it is her emotionally nuanced performance throughout that holds Badla together as a reasonably compelling narrative.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, ‘'Badla' Movie Review: Amitabh Bachchan shines in Sujoy Ghosh's engaging whodunit”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (8 March 2019).   
  2. “Locked-room mystery”, Wikipedia, (23 July 2019).    
  3. “John Dickson Carr”, Wikipedia, (21 July 2019).   

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