Dead men quell no tales. You cannot defame the dead, and they aren’t around to disagree. Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla features a slick, relentlessly twisty cat-and-mouse game played with both cat and mouse sitting in the same room, strategising across a table. A woman has been accused of murdering her lover, and a lawyer wants to get to her truth in order to defend her. Neither believes in the other, and both will do anything to uncover the truth of the other — even lie.
A slavish remake of the 2017 Spanish thriller Contratiempo (The Invisible Guest), Ghosh’s efficiently assembled film keeps tension at a boil through twist and counter-twist, but the finalé is easy to see coming, principally because we expect certain actors to have the last laugh. Still, there is something to be said for this briskly paced thriller that doesn’t slow down to spoon-feed its audience. Badla never loses grip.
Truth is a many narrator-ed thing, and while Naina (Taapsee Pannu) and Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) are the accused and her lawyer respectively, there are times their conversations sound like a meeting between a scriptwriter pitching a story and an overpaid script-consultant. “In your story, people keep turning into whatever the story needs them to become,” complains Gupta. “I’m not paying you to find loopholes in my plot,” fires Naina.
A woman is found in a hotel room with a dead body. She swears she isn’t the murderer, but nobody else has gone in or out of the room. The puzzle sounds a bit like Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders In The Rue Morgue, but then — to jump to the diametrically opposite end of the thriller spectrum — it becomes a bit I Know What You Did Last Summer. As the story goes on, it gets pulpier still. Credit to Ghosh and his actors for keeping things tight. Besides Bachchan and Pannu, Amrita Singh stands out as a mother with a missing son.
The film is set in Scotland, and this considerably enhances the look and feel, as cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay highlights telling details with unmistakable sharpness. That said, the characters operate in an entirely Indian milieu, being questioned by Indian policemen and interviewed by Indian journalists — who show up, laughably enough, to appointments dressed in the same clothes as their ID badges.
Some technicalities get in the way: the newspapers (with banner headlines) look astonishingly fake; smartphones are used as timers, while recording devices remain exasperatingly analog. I shouldn’t say more. Badla remains an engaging film, and while we can blame Ghosh for casting Bachchan and somewhat spoiling the climax, he can’t possibly be blamed for casting that man in a role that requires a lot of talking. Amitabh Bachchan has been in the movies for fifty years now, and whatever he says, we’re listening.