You don’t need me to tell you that 15 years is a long period of time. You are not the same person at 25 as you are at 40 or, for that matter, at any two ages separated by 15 years. A time period that long not only changes people by dint of its sheer passage, but also affects them differently based on their circumstances. So 15 years would acquire different meanings for an everyman as opposed to someone battling a devastating and incorrigible loss. But Sriram Raghavan’s latest, Badlapur, a revenge thriller, treats the passage of a decade and a half with such indifference that its characters appear like people you read about in a perfunctory news article — you know their name, occupation and troubles, but you don’t get a fair sense of who they are.
The men in question are Raghu (Varun Dhawan), a 20-something advertising professional left disconsolate by the death of his wife and child, and Liak (Nawaazuddin Siddiqui), a miscreant responsible for these deaths. Liak is eventually jailed; this news, however, doesn’t do anything for Raghu. He leaves Pune (where he stayed with his family) for Badlapur, a small town near Mumbai, where he plans to live for the next 15 years, the period Liak rots in jail. Why does Raghu leave Pune? We don’t know for sure (we can guess though — to be asocial so he can internalise his loss). What does Raghu do in those 15 years? No idea — all we know is that he lives in a biggish, sparsely furnished studio, and manages a nearby warehouse. But we need to know what these 15 years meant to this man — did he make a conscious decision to disintegrate into a deranged sociopath? How difficult was it for this affluent city-type to stoop down to the level of someone like Liak, a desperate, dangerous murderer? You can understand the implication of this plot-point — that Liak went to prison, and Raghu built one for himself to prepare for the final showdown — but that’s not enough. You can’t stoke our curiosity, Mr Raghavan, and move on as if nothing happened — merely slapping a “15 years later” title card on screen a few minutes later doesn’t cut it.
The Raghu we see 15 years later is obviously a changed man — he now doesn’t hesitate before threatening or killing someone — but since we were robbed of his journey, what we see before us is not the bloodlust of a man aggrieved, but an embodiment of a vague idea of vengeance. Liak, on the other hand, has an equally compelling (back) story that’s treated as casually — he’s lived a lie for 15 years (he doesn’t own up to the murders, and blames his partner for the crime), waiting for Raghu’s mercy, while despising him at the same time. Both Raghu and Liak are conflicted and helpless in their own ways, which makes you want to know them better, but they, and the world they belong to, are so vaguely defined that you can go with them only so far.
A film like Badlapur, solely centered around its lead baying for his nemesis’ blood (unlike, say, a Haider or Gangs of Wasseypur — movies that went beyond the motif of vengeance), is a tough nut to crack because the revenge thriller sub-genre, in the last decade, has been consummately owned by some terrific films from the world over: Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil, the 2010 Japanese film Confessions, or the 2009 Argentinean Academy Award winner, The Secret in Their Eyes; Raghavan’s Badlapur, in that case, is a lesser film not because it can’t bring anything new to the table (which would have been an unrealistic and unfair expectation anyway), but its inability to simulate what other masterful films were able to achieve in this terrain — showing how vengeance can be taxing, tiring, circular and, hence ultimately, futile.
Sure, Badlapur is not without its moments — Raghavan is intelligent enough to recognise that humour is only a step away from horror, that the idea of ultimate solace is fundamentally distorted in a depraved, self-centred world; even the leads, although saddled with half-baked characters, manage to keep you just about interested by their assured performances (can Siddiqui falter at all?) — but these ingenuities are so few and sporadic that they can’t define this film. Badlapur is partially salvaged by its last 20 minutes — thanks to, at last, some smart, nuanced writing that casts light on the characters’ inner world — but it’s, sadly, a little too late by then. There’s absolutely no doubt that when Raghavan gets his act together, he can make a film that can gobsmack us all. But his last such film was Johnny Gaddar, and that was more than seven years ago. It will be a real shame if we have to remember Raghavan as a has-been filmmaker.
This review was first published at The Sunday Guardian.