Badla jumps to the point straightaway. We know from the trailers that there’s a murder involved- Arjun(Tony Luke), and a suspicion hung over the female partner of the victim- Naina Sethi(Tapsee Pannu). Baadal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) arrives at her flat, which in the absence of family for a married Naina that we later come to know, looks like a hotel room for refuge upon being abandoned by her kindred. Baadal is a specialist crime lawyer and quickly shrugs away from calling her ‘Mrs. Sethi’ to addressing her as ‘Naina’, in one of his first signals to peel off the layers she is likely applying upon herself and arrive at that central truth that lies within her character.
The initial formalities are thus gradually shunned as their exchange begins. In what follows as a series of flashbacks attached to conversations between them, Naina walks a double-edged sword of shame and dread in her revelations- she either has to admit how this could all be an extension of an extra-marital sojourn gone wrong for the much-renowned businesswoman that she is, in how Arjun’s bold and reckless behavior got her in that position; or worse, she has to open up to reveal that it was all always under her command, that it is the dead Arjun who was the more honorable of the two. Beginning to tell her tale, she says “it all started three months ago, and I still regret it today”. Baadal whisks her back from the flashback and tells her he has nothing to do with ‘the regret’ part, that he expects the sullen, shut down Naina to open up all that has occurred in the shape of facts untouched by emotion so the court manipulations can be guided their way. That move is one of many instances where Badla brings the theatre crowd surprisingly into the conversation. The crowd break into a sudden chuckle, and sit down on an invisible chair by the table in the room by the window where this conversation occurs, pointing questions, making guesses by themselves.
There is another death associated with this entire case- of a young boy named Sunny, whose car meets an accident with Naina’s car as Naina and Arjun are discussing their unholy relationship with remorse. Upon finding Sunny dead(or is he?)in the car, Arjun coerces Naina to dump the car somewhere(or does he?), which she does in a nearby swamp, as Arjun awaits a tow-car for their own faulty vehicle. In a superb move, the tow-car doesn’t arrive, but Sunny’s parents(Amrita Singh and Tanveer Ghani) do at the site and end up taking Arjun and the car to their home so the mechanic husband can fix it. It is in moves like these where Badla is really fulfilling, because just like in Andhadhun last year, it isn’t so much about the thrill of a criminal procedure or the danger of a secret being spilled, but the contrast between a safe, open life and a life of sordid, hurtful affairs.
It is where a film like Badla triumphs over a film like Drishyam(2015), in its close attention to the life internally brimming in these corners and not the detached thrill of the whole affair. As Naina prepares to dump Sunny’s car, she is alone in the woods and the already cold and dull countryside is lit even low in the hour of the evening(this has to be one of the striking low-light scenes ever shot in Hindi Cinema). She surveys the calm swamp before the activity and turns back to see the car with its headlamp lit as if it were someone awake to her secret. As the car is swallowed gradually by the swamp, the calm water begins to make a gurgling sound and Naina resigns to the ground on her haunches. Sujoy undercuts between the car being drowned and Naina’s reaction as if it wasn’t the swamp that was swallowing the car but Naina herself, who was choosing to bury a secret within her and seething in its effect with a gurgling sound. Sujoy does a wonderful job of creating scenes of safety where he sneakily introduces a danger to his characters in the same space.
Sujoy Ghosh rightly chooses to bind this tale to Tapsee Pannu’s screen presence then. Tapsee has made a name for herself as the questionable, tentative woman finding herself in a spot of bother where she has to fight for her sanity- from Pink to Naam Shabana to Manmarziyaan. In all these films until now, we’ve come to see her redeemed of a possible blotch on her psyche or her character. Sujoy presents her as Naina here and lets that reputation of Tannu remain hanging in the air for the suspense of intention of his film to thrive in the process. Even from Amitabh Bachchan and Tapsee Pannu’s onscreen history in Pink, we expect him to eventually protect her. But, as Badla progresses, we begin to sense that this is not going to be that simple, that that expectation of ours is mostly a facade that the film has built to take us into its trust for a tale that is more internal, more driven by mistakes a person can make, this risks they can in a rush of mind to protect the life that they’ve built for themselves. Just where will Sujoy take us through this thread then? Just where will we find the Tapsee we know by the end of this exchange? If the initial details paint a picture of dread and guilt in the cold, dull blueish portrait of countryside England, the latter revelations leave us dazed, surprised by the possibilities of human nature. The crowd sitting by their table have by then gone through an excellent series of motions about what a person can do by then.