Independence Day release Batla House chronicles the controversial Batla House encounter case. As the film opens today, director Nikkhil Advani shares with indianexpress.com how he was not convinced with the first draft of the film’s script.
Nikkhil also explains why he included a song like “Saki Saki” in a film which deals with such a sensitive topic and what he wants the audience to take away from his film.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Weren’t you a bit apprehensive in picking up a subject as sensitive as Batla House?
I didn’t know anything about the incident of Batla House. It was Ritesh Shah, who is from Jamia and a political beast, who came to me with the script and told me he has researched it for over two years. When I read the script, I asked him to make me read all the other stuff that he hasn’t included in the script because I was not convinced. I felt there was another side to the story. I wanted to read everything prominent people had said about it and when I read it, I said the film should be about the two sides and maybe a third as well.
Batla House is the struggle of a decorated police officer, who, within a minute, was changed into a murderer and a group of students were called terrorists. Today, we have 280 characters as a weapon. We just type those 280 characters and the world either agrees or disagrees with you. You have WhatsApp groups, journalists have space to write their opinions, and then there are some politicians who have agendas. Amidst all this, the truth gets lost. Truth can’t be just black or white, it has to be grey. So, in the trailer, John’s senior says the orders were of investigation and not to open fire. Then why did they fire? What happened? How did someone who was a six-time President’s gallantry award winner get it wrong? Did he really get it wrong? It asks all these questions and tries to answer them. But I am not saying my answers are right. I am just saying what the court said.
With such ambiguity around the actual course of events in the Batla House case, how did you manage to zero in on the script? What kind of research did you do?
After a point, the writer and the director have to reach a common ground. So, after a while, Ritesh and I sat together and decided we have got everything. While we were working on it, we met journalists who were reporting from the street for days after the Batla House encounter happened. They asked have you put this track since there was a rumour about this particular thing happening inside the department. Depending on what we felt were credible suggestions, we took them and tried to put it in our script.
What do you want the audience to take away from Batla House when they walk out of theaters?
I have shown about 40 minutes of the film to a vast number of people and after watching the movie everyone started browsing whether I got it right or not. They checked if I included various aspects of it. So, it started a conversation. This is what I want. I want to start a conversation. For me, patriotism in our country today is to be able to question.
Why did you choose John Abraham to play the lead in Batla House?
I believe, after a while, you start working with actors whom you don’t select, but they select you. They ask what are you doing next. So, you don’t select John, John selects you. John and I have now collaborated on three films and we both have similar taste in the stories we want to tell.
Recently, Mulk by Anubhav Sinha dealt with Islamophobia. Does your film also comment on it?
Yeah totally, you can’t ignore that issue. You have to accept that it is prevalent and you can’t brush it under the carpet if you are making a film like Batla House.
With such a serious subject at hand, do you think a song like “Saki Saki” was necessary?
Do you remember D-Day? So, all the media people liked the movie and appreciated it but audiences didn’t come to watch it. I want the audience to come and watch my movie. I think it’s such an important story that should be watched. Once they come in, they should get entertained. They should enjoy what they are watching and understand what the story is. If that means I have to work hard and get Nora Fatehi to become an actor and play a character who is a dancer, I don’t mind. And, it’s not just one song, we have integrated her character into the story.
Today, not only a sports drama or a military drama, but every other film has a patriotic element. Do you think it is a new formula to attract people to cinema halls or is it becoming difficult to tell stories without a patriotic element?
I think if you are force-fitting anything in your film just for eyeballs, you are being dishonest towards your work. That’s why I say you have to tailor your script according to your character. If John’s character wouldn’t have been patriotic, I would not have made him patriotic. It has to come naturally. However, I don’t think anyone else is also including patriotic element forcefully. I think as filmmakers, we have become true to our stories in terms of what we put out, whether it be Andhadhun, Stree, Article 15, Badhaai Ho, Raazi, Super 30 or Kabir Singh.