A nearly faithful remake of the Spanish mystery, Contratiempo (2016), Badla wears the air of a cold, civil, old-fashioned whodunit, which treats its premise like an insidious game and characters with undisguised suspicion.
In a reversal of genders, it is a woman (Taapsee Pannu) of considerable means and power facing incriminating evidence for a murder. The only man (Amitabh Bachchan) who can prove her innocence has never lost a single case in his 40-year-old career.
This is all too comfortable for a genre like Badla‘s, and so Ghosh brings on the murky — one convoluted flashback at a time.
As the two go back and forth over the scene of crime in her cheerless makeshift apartment, the pieces of a puzzle slowly emerge in the shape of an adulterous affair, unwary spouses, a road accident, an old couple whose help was sought and an undisclosed blackmailer.
Against the backdrop of Scotland’s icy air and imposing beauty, Badla savours its many permutations and combinations to widen the differences between every passing account. The truth has many versions, believes the undefeated lawyer whose love for details and drawing analogies from the Mahabharata describe his distinctively patronising disposition.
Huff and puff aside, forensics and logic are forsaken to build on dramatic twists and surprise takes precedence over sense. Badla isn’t above this dearly held trope. What then works, despite its susceptibility for contrivances, is Ghosh’s intense focus on the chemistry of two opaque individuals testing each other’s aptitude for justice.
There is a seductive quality to Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu’s interactions, something we miss sorely every time Badla turns its attention on the ancillary elements of the plot. Amrita Singh and Manav Kaul are compelling personalities, but Badla confines them to the shadows. And the utter blandness of Malayalam actor Tony Luke could single-handedly destroy Badla if it wasn’t for the combined magnetism of Bachchan-Pannu.
Ghosh has roped in two perfect leads to elevate Badla’s adequate standards.
If Pannu’s exhausted eyes and irritated veneer capture her predicament, her ingrained arrogance conveys the volume of her self-worth. Though in a soup, she is smart as a whip. In Pannu’s expressive skin, it’s all so effortless.
As the ally she evaluates and confides in, Bachchan is a prim portrait of shrewd and sceptical. His disbelieving tone reverberates the authority of experience that can tell 6 from 9. Is it this ‘ahead of the curve’ quality to his portrayal, that keeps Badla ticking even if you have solved the mystery long, long ago.
Master of mysteries, Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘Revenge is sweet, not fattening.’ At two hours running time, Badla keeps the deed both short and sweet.