Two dead bodies. Two locations: one in the open, in a forest; the other a closed-room, made popular by Agatha Christie’s novels. Are the two connected? Who is the killer? The one who is arrested? Or someone else? Badla, an official remake of a Spanish murder mystery, pulls off a mostly gripping whodunit, something Bollywood rarely manages.
Successful businesswoman Naina Sethi ( Pannu) is a murder suspect, with all evidence stacked against her. Her husband and child have turned their back on her, and things look bleak, till a saviour arrives in the shape of ace lawyer Badal Gupta (Bachchan), who has, of course, never lost a case.
Badla is essentially a two-hander filled out by Bachchan and Pannu, last seen together in Pink. Most of the film takes place within a room, with these two main characters constantly shifting positions, both physically and morally. As each layer comes off, with Bachchan persuading Sethi to ‘tell the truth, and nothing but the truth’, we are privy to a little more information. The source remains Naina, but with each reveal, we are forced to examine the facts: who is telling the truth? What is the truth?
Alert viewers will know where Badla is headed: sometimes the title of the film is the biggest spoiler. But still, for a film which relies chiefly upon its actors’ ability to vary mood and delivery in a confined space, Badla does well enough. If both Bachchan and Pannu start off a tad stilted, you can put it down to the fact that they are strangers. Bachchan’s familiar declamations, become, after some time, smart feints, and you start warming up to him, and the film. And Pannu, all nude make-up and strained face, starts settling down too. It is in this loosening up that the film becomes interesting, because obviously, things are not what they seem, and people are not who they say they are, and everyone has dark pasts and tawdry secrets.
Some bits take us outside. A tryst between two clandestine lovers takes place in a snow-laden hut far out of town. The hotel where a body is found is on a picturesque hillside. But we circle back every time to those two people, in that room, one thrusting, the other parrying. And keeping us with them, despite a few flat exchanges, and some convoluted bits.
Among the able supporting cast is Manav Kaul, whom I always want to see more of. The same goes for the wonderfully agile Amrita Singh. It’s a pleasure to see her in a role of some substance. I’d call this the best ‘badla’ against the stock mum-and-aunt types actresses of a certain age are forced to play: on the whole, Badla is a well-crafted suspenseful thriller, and Singh’s presence gives it heft.