The sheer thrill of watching a film and not knowing what will happen next is one of the great pleasures offered by director Sriram Raghavan’s unpredictable and deliciously twisted revenge thriller Badlapur. The film stages a chilling battle of wits between hero and villain, but nothing here is plain black or white.
Varun Dhawan is Raghu, an average Joe in Pune, whose life is turned upside down when his wife (Yami Gautam) and young son are killed in a bank robbery gone wrong. One of the two men involved in the incident, Laik (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), is arrested and promptly sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other, who Laik won’t identify, has taken off with the loot. Consumed by a cocktail of grief, anger and helplessness, Raghu retreats, aptly, to a small town named Badlapur where he simmers with revenge-fueled hate.
Seizing your attention from the moment in, the film’s crisp narrative seldom loosens its grip. You’re on the edge of your seat for virtually the entire first half of Badlapur, as Raghu and Laik’s parallel storylines unravel over the next 15 years, the promise of a volatile confrontation looming large. But, as anyone who’s seen Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddar will agree, Raghavan isn’t interested in violence for the sake of violence, and unlike last year’s similarly themed Ek Villain, this film is more psychological thriller than bloody blast.
Which is not to say that there’s no gore in Badlapur. There is. It’s a pretty brutal film, in fact. But Raghavan uses violence economically, and mines these scenes for maximum impact. It’s the unexpected moments of humor though, that catch you completely unaware. Laik’s repeated taunting of a prison bully inspires chuckles, as does a scene in which a detective introduces herself to Raghu when he shows up at her home. The script gleefully shatters clichés and rejects conventional plot turns to surprise us at every available opportunity.
Raghavan toys also with our traditional expectations from heroes and villains, by turning the accepted template on its head to blur the line between the two. The film’s key wisdom – that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary cruelty – is demonstrated in Raghu’s carefully orchestrated takedown of every single person he holds responsible for his misery. And in a climax that is both stunning and underwhelming at the same time, he uses the film’s most unlikely character to make a point about the futility of violence and revenge.
An ensemble of fine actors is assembled to breathe life into the film’s terrific plot, and each is integral in their own way, despite the length of their parts. Huma Qureshi and particularly Radhika Apte, both playing selfless women who will go to great lengths to defend their men, stand out with impressive turns. But the heavy lifting, expectedly, is left to the two leads.
Varun Dhawan, the star of mostly light-hearted romantic and comedy films, convincingly gets under the skin of the cold, calculating vigilante protagonist, displaying an intensity he hasn’t revealed before. Transforming not merely physically to play the older Raghu, he even somehow brings a distinct world-weariness to these portions. Then there is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who walks away with all the best lines, and leaves his stamp all over the film. Alternating nicely between maniacal, cunning, and vulnerable, he delivers a performance that is at once internalized and yet playing to the gallery.
Despite all its strengths, Badlapur isn’t a perfect film. The pace slackens post-intermission, plot contrivances are many, and you might say the film is misogynistic in its treatment of women. These are relatively small problems in the larger picture, though. For the most part, the film keeps you on your toes, curious to see where its twists and turns will lead.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Badlapur. Welcome back, Sriram Raghavan; Agent Vinod has been forgotten!