Sriram Raghavan was a movie buff much before he became a director, and it's something he's always worn on his sleeve. In 2007's Johnny Gaddaar, his best-received film till date, Raghavan paid cinematic tribute to Vijay Anand's thriller Johnny Mera Naam, Stanley Kubrick's noir The Killing, and the celebrated murder sequence from the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Parwana - among many classics. His last outing, the rollicking (and unfairly panned) Agent Vinod, was a spy thriller: a James Bond homage served with an Indian flavour and a twinkle in the eye. In his latest, Badlapur, when the heist-and-murder-accused Laik arrives in jail for what is going to be a long stretch in captivity, the prisoners gather round a television on which Sholay is playing. "Bees baras jail mein rehne ke baad sab kucch bhool jaoge, Gabbar," announces Sanjeev's Kumar's Thakur to Amjad Khan's iconic dacoit.
Unlike Gabbar, Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Laik completes most of his 15-year jail sentence. But as Raghavan makes clear, in Badlapur and in his gripping first feature, Ek Hasina Thi (2004), time in jail needn't wipe out memories of one's past.
Badlapur comes a decade after Ek Hasina Thi, but the two films have much in common: The hardening of innocents, and the passage of time in expectation of revenge. In EHT, it was the trusting Sarika (Urmila Matondkar), jailed on a trumped-up charge of being the mistress of an underworld don, who went from wide-eyed child-woman to steely avenger. In Badlapur, it is Varun Dhawan's youthful family man Raghu who makes the transition to a man solely possessed by the idea of vengeance. Female revenge sagas seem to necessarily involve a physical transformation - think Khoon Bhari Maang for a classic Hindi movie example - and EHT was no exception. Matondkar's Sarika went from long crinkly locks, bell sleeves and ultra-feminine gathered skirts to a more practical crop and fitted trousers. Raghu, too, goes from wholesome and clean-shaven to stubbly and then bearded in his grief-stricken avatar.
But Raghavan's journey from EHT to Badlapur involves much more than a simple change in the gender of his protagonist. He's playing with the same concerns - tragedy, revenge, innocence, evil - but the game feels quite different. For one, unlike in EHT, it isn't the clean-cut middle class young person (Dhawan) who is thrown into prison. It is the bad apple, the petty thief who's never done anything right, the guy who we've just seen shooting two innocents for no fault of their own.
So, logically we ought to spend the film feeling glad: The bad guy's in prison, isn't he? But Raghavan pushes the knife in, and then turns it slowly -- Siddiqui's unforgettable portrayal of Laik makes him powerfully, unmistakeably human. He may lie in court and ogle girls on the street, but he is also a man who truly loves -- and is loved back by -- at least one woman. What is truly appealing is his zest for life. His longing for chicken korma and Thai massage remains undimmed by years in the wilderness of jail.
Jail itself is clearly of interest to Raghavan. In EHT, it was a women's prison, a place of madness and misery, as places of female incarceration have been in films from Bimal Roy's Bandini to Bruno Dumont's affecting Camille (2013), about the real-life sculptress Camille Claudel. For the gentle Sarika, the cruel truth of her lover's betrayal only sinks in alongside the horror of what she must endure because of it. The rats in her prison cell and the terrible food are not the worst of it. It is the casual humiliations, the mindless fights, the power games and the bullying that come to make jail seem, in her mind and ours, a microcosm of the world outside. If you learn to survive this, Raghavan seems to suggest, you're equipped for anything the outside world can throw at you.
And yet there are also those for whom jail is a refuge of sorts: The half-crazed Dolly, with whom Sarika shares her cell, declares quite seriously that prison food is delicious, while Pratima Kazmi's impressive Pramila, playing the widow of a mafia don, stays in prison voluntarily because it is a safe haven, away from both the police and gangs.
The depiction of jail in Badlapur is quite different from that in EHT. There is the occasional bout of violence here, too. But unlike the wild, unsupervised cat-fights and the free-for-all sense of the women's prison he created in 2007, Raghavan paints Badlapur's jail as a Foucauldian space: beds in straight lines, a place of discipline and punishment. Laiq even inhabits it as a space of labour: he learns to make chairs, which will earn him money. And eventually it is the medicalisation of jail as a space, its recognition of his diseased body, which allows him to gain a few months of physical freedom.
Meanwhile we have Raghu, who immerses himself in his grief, churning it deeper and deeper until it curdles into violence. He is physically free, but mentally incarcerated. If the relentless passage of the years, without being able to move on with one's life, is prison's real punishment, then Raghu has done as the film says: imprisoned himself in his own jail. He has made time stand still.
Badlapur's eventual take on revenge seems to me more ambitious than film noir in the traditional sense. It reverses our ideas about what justice might mean, but also our idea of who is deserving of it.