Nikkhil Advani: Challenging to keep bias out of film on Batla House

Advani said the research on the project was done by screenwriter Ritesh Shah, an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia, close to the encounter site

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Nikkhil Advani Batla House

New Delhi: Making a film on a contentious subject is always challenging. For director Nikkhil Advani, it was even more as he had to insulate the narration of events surrounding the Batla House encounter in his next film from his own biases and examine the complexities in their entirety.

Advani said his focus was on the human aspect of what had happened during the police encounter in Delhi’s Batla House in 2008. “How split-second decisions were made, the rationale, the personal history, ambitions, personal risks and conflicts,” he said. To do that, a filmmaker needs to do thorough research, backed by a strong screenplay.

Advani said the research on the project was done by his screenwriter-friend Ritesh Shah, an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia, which is close to the site of the encounter. In fact, Shah brought the story to Advani and had already worked on it. “What fascinated me the most beyond politics or controversy was how humans behave under pressure, how people lead in crisis situations, how they make decisions. I wanted to make a film that invites my audience to look at things from all angles and think about this encounter in all its complexities,” Advani said.

For someone who has made entertaining films like Kal Ho Naa Ho and thrillers like D- Day, the most challenging bit was to keep his own biases out of the project, Advani said.

Shah scurried through police files in the public domain as well as news articles and blogs by prominent journalists and Jamia Millia Teachers Solidarity Union. “I would say the idea was to look at all and any kind of material in the public domain. I believe he (Shah) worked on it for about a year,” Advani said. “Ritesh (Shah) himself is a Jamia student, so he had the advantage of first-hand conversations with journalists who were around at the time. He then took four years to write the draft that made me feel like I was ready to do this,” he said.

Asked if he had taken any “creative liberty” in the portrayal of any incident, Advani said, “As you can imagine, yes there is some creative liberty in trying to interpret personal motivations and relationships these are, of course, inferred. But, for things like court proceedings, we have stayed accurate to transcripts available and out in the public domain.”

Delhi Police officer Mohan Chand Sharma was shot dead during the encounter on 19 September 2008. Two suspected terrorists were killed and two other suspects arrested.

Batla House, the film, has been told from the perspective of Deputy Commissioner of Police, Special Cell, Sanjeev Yadav. John Abraham has essayed the role of the DCP.

While Advani accepted he did not meet Sharma’s family, he said it would have been good to have their version. But, he said, he interacted with Yadav.

Shah approached Yadav through a producer who had access to him. “From what I have understood and seen in our interaction even today, Sanjeev Yadav is a cautious man. When I met him, my first impression was that he was guarded and a man of few words rarely speaking more than what it took to answer my specific questions. He was particular about me understanding details very accurately, ” Advani said.

Batla House releases this Independence Day. It features Mrunal Thakur and Nora Fatehi as well.