By Udita Banerjee
The trope of revenge has been a popular content in Bollywood and many movies such as Haider, Badlapur and Agneepath have been both commercially and critically successful. Vadh is a thriller revenge drama, directed by Rajeev Barnwal and Jaspal Singh Sandhu, and produced by Luv Films. The plot of Vadh might have resemblances with movies like Drishyam and Simbaa, which are typical revenge dramas with their protagonists going unpunished for the act of murder (revenge) at the end, but in its execution Vadh is different because of the portrayal of its meek characters and their profound transformations. The movie has an ensemble cast consisting of Sanjay Mishra, Neena Gupta, Manav Vij and Saurabh Sachdeva. It was released on Netflix in December 2022, and has garnered much attention from audience as well as critics. Among the myriad issues that the film talks about, representation of good and evil, come out as a significant trope in the course of the film. In this piece, I have attempted a close reading of Vadh, and argued how right and wrong are socially constructed ideas, and why the making of such movies is essential and at the same time, problematic
The plot of the movie is woven with unexpected twists and turns but the thrill to know what lies ahead remains constant, making the movie an interesting watch. There is also a sense of darkness and impending doom prevailing from the very beginning. The protagonist, Shambhunath Mishra (Sanjay Mishra) and his wife, Manju Mishra (Neena Gupta), are forced to take loans, by their only son, who wanted to pursue higher education abroad, and are harassed by loan sharks on their failure to repay the same. The only source of happiness in the couple’s life is the little Naina, a girl from the neighbourhood, who keeps visiting them. Several events lead to a gory murder by Mishra and the second half of the movie depicts how he escapes punishment for the same.
The movie focuses on a plethora of profound philosophical questions surrounding the thematics of good and evil, and raises the rhetorical dilemma in the mind of the audience about the underpinnings of the word “vadh”. Although the word translates to murder, it is considered a higher form of the same, done with a purpose of saving lives or a greater good. In Indian mythology, “vadh” is easily associated with the context of a divine figure killing a demon, that veritably symbolises the victory of good over evil. The character of Shambhunath Mishra is depicted as an extremely gentle human being, who is not only a compassionate and honest individual but also a responsible and doting husband. He is exploited by almost anyone, and there are a number of moments in the movie where we feel pity for the character and afraid of what providence has in store for him.
Shambhunath Mishra is seen patiently tolerating all the torment that the loan shark Prajapati heaps over him—from bringing a prostitute to his house and using his room, leaving an aghast Mishra and his wife cleaning after him, to insulting Mishra and making him push his car in the middle of a pavement. Mishra’s will to become destructive has slowly been built in the movie, as the audience can observe his anger in the form of glares that he gives his tormentor every time he is humiliated. As Ervin Staub argues in The Psychology of Good and Evil, “Destructive actions are outcomes of certain basic ordinary psychological and social processes and their evolution into extreme forms” (6), Mishra adheres to destructive action only at the moment he reaches his breaking point (when Prajapati lusts over the nine-year old Naina, and offers a bargain to him to get her for an hour). This very idea of a person reaching their breaking point has been a focus of films and television shows for some time now. The old, weary Shambhunath Mishra could have certain parallels with a cancer-ridden Walter White from the very popular television series, “Breaking Bad”, where the virtuous teacher, White, transforms himself completely and chooses a life of crime.
Shambhunath Mishra also breaks bad under certain compelling circumstances resulting in his transformation into an almost cold-blooded murderer, who not only kills Prajapati but also hacks the pieces of his body before disposing them off and finally gets his remains ground in a flour machine. But unlike Walter White, Mishra’s crime is associated with a higher aim, and is glorified in the movie. In this context, it can be argued that such destructiveness does not necessarily attribute to the concept of evil because it is done to protect oneself and save others from harm, as Staub describes: “At times, intense violence, destructive as it is, is not evil, but justified self defence in response to unjustified attack on oneself, one’s family, one’s group” (9).
The movie produces a discourse where questions of violence and revenge resurface in stereotypical ways but it also opens threads of discussions on the very aspects of good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable. Evil is often produced and aggravated by passive bystanders (Staub 11). We see that initially Mishra goes to the police to seek help but upon visiting Shakti Singh, he realises that Singh was hardly empathetic to what Mishra was going through. He rather sides with the perpetrator of violence in saying “Paise liye hain to lautane to padenge” (If you have taken the money, you must return it) and goes on giving excuses about the rising crime in the city that he needs to look after, justifying his inaction towards the violence perpetrated against Mishra. Mishra leaves because the response from Singh makes him realise that he would not receive any help. This lack of empathy and necessary legal support on the part of the police, inadvertently becomes the trigger point for the crime for Mishra. He realises that the task to protect himself and his dear ones was completely his responsibility. One may ask: who is a greater perpetrator of cruelty in case of Shambhunath Mishra and his wife? Is it the loan shark Prajapati, or Dada (for whom Prajapati worked), or the inspector who fails to perform his duty as a law-enforcing agent, or is it simply Mishra’s son, Diwakar, who tricked and forced his parents into a dirty puddle of loans, and refused to help them in their times of extreme distress.
Manju Mishra is portrayed as a kind-hearted woman who is devoutly religious and visits the temple regularly. She is also the typical mother, trying to bridge the gap between a reluctant father and an indifferent son. In one of the earlier scenes of the movie, Manju rebukes her husband for trying to kill a rat in the house. She says, “Puja Path wale ghar me jiv hatya karwaenge?” (Will we kill animals and shed blood in the same house where we worship our gods?) To which Shambhunath responds by saying, “Badmash hote hain ye, inko marna zaruri hai” (These creatures are wicked. It is important to kill them). This scene almost foreshadows the future because Mishra finally murders Pandey in the same house. There is pitch darkness after the murder is committed, followed by Manju switching on the light saying, “Andhere me kyun baithe ho” (Why are you sitting in the dark?) just before she witnesses the crime herself. Darkness here characterises the physical as well as mental space of Mishra. The overall tone of the movie is dark, and it has been enhanced by the shots taken within the house, which is mostly dark or dimly lit even during the daytime, symbolising the inner darkness and bleakness of the couple’s life.
Manju is initially appalled at the sight of her husband being capable of killing another human being. She is scarred, unable to sleep and has terrible nightmares. In her vulnerability she almost resembles Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, unable to wash the blood from her hands. The portrayal of blood in the movie is also very intriguing. Even though Manju is abhorred at the idea of “jiv hatya” (killing of a living being), she is later seen cleaning all the blood that was spilt during the murder. In a turn of events, she not only accepts but also valorises the act of murder when she learns what had driven the old man to such heinousness. She also tries to cover him from the police and believes that no “paap” (sin) had been committed at all. She is able to clean all the blood from their hands unlike Lady Macbeth and moves on with a clear conscience.
The interesting part about the depiction of good and evil in the movie is that it shows how such concepts are created culturally and stereotyped in the social fabric. Manju had earlier seen Prajapati bring a prostitute into their home, maltreating her, and sexually assaulting her but at that point, neither she nor Shambhunath Mishra show any signs of sympathy for this girl. In the same scene, it is discovered that Manju does not let the prostitute enter her kitchen or touch any utensils, adhering to the idea that she is ‘unclean and impure’ and therefore does not have access to the inner sanctum of their house. The prostitute thus is subjected to disrespect not only by Prajapati Pandey but also by the Mishra couple, but that wrong is in the accepted domain of the socio-cultural milieu, so commonly practised, that it almost translates to right. Even after she is assaulted and asked to leave the house, the focus of the Mishra couple, and for that matter, the audience, too, is drawn towards the bedroom used by Pandey, and had to be cleaned by Shambhunath Mishra. The mess left behind and the fact that the Mishra couple’s room was used for such an act becomes more important than the act itself and the person who was at the receiving end of violence.
In connection with the same, it can be said that the concepts of punishment and forgiveness are always unevenly bestowed, not always keeping to humanitarian values. Vadh is not a simple revenge story because revenge itself can never be a linear process and cannot be straitjacketed into ideas of black and white. Prajapati Pandey was given death as punishment but the punishment was also bestowed on his family, especially his child, who had almost nothing to do with the crimes he committed. A counter argument might suggest that no child should deserve such a father, but the question is, who gets to decide that? Does the child have a voice in that decision? Similarly, questions can be asked about the punishment that Diwakar Mishra receives, or if he receives any punishment at all? It is shown in the movie that the Mishra couple sever all ties with their son, but is that punishment enough?
Shakti Singh, a policeman, who was himself associated with a lot of wrong doings, helps Shambhunath Mishra, owing to his own benefits out of the same, and very tactfully puts the onus of Prajapati’s murder on Dada (Jaspal Singh Sandhu) by distorting the evidence found at Mishra’s home. In his article “Reconsidering Virtue”, James Carter argues, “A central component of Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue is the distinction between duties of right and duties of virtue. The fundamental difference between these two sets of duties is that while a duty of right can be externally imposed (as the law of a state binds its citizens, say), a duty of virtue must be self-imposed or, in Kant’s words, ‘based only on free self-constraint.’ Of course, duties of right can also be self-imposed, that is, from the spirit of duty, rather than from fear of external sanction. But duties of virtue cannot, conversely, be legally enforced. They are thus a matter of character” (549).
Kant’s conception of virtue lays specific stress on the concept of individual morality. Mishra too is bound by a sense of self-imposed morality whereby he takes it upon himself to commit the murder of Pandey as a ‘good deed’. Again, inspector Shakti Singh commits an act of corruption in using his position to frame someone for a murder they had not committed, guided by personal vendetta as well as a sense of pity for Mishra. Singh might also have been guided by a sense of individual morality which does not necessarily match the moral dictates and laws of the state. The questions that come up here are: what does ‘right’ exactly adhere to in the movie? What does morality reflect? And is it justified to punish someone guided by a sense of individual morality even if such an act breaks the law?
Vadh raises extremely important questions on morality, law, social values, and understanding of the human psyche. It also reflects the complexity of relationships where on one hand, a son refuses to acknowledge the contribution of his aged parents but on the other hand an old couple love and accept a young girl as their own daughter. It also leads us to question the pathetic state of affairs in some parts of the country where almost a parallel governance is led by the powerful and rich while law and order take a backseat, making it miserable for people who are powerless and do not have the means to defend themselves. Vadh is an intricate representation of the politics which is at play, even in the most miniscule of situations, and amongst individuals of all kinds. Despite its many strengths, Vadh is not without flaws, especially in the second half, where Shambhunath Mishra gets away with his crime and almost goes without any punishment.
It is true that the audience gets a sense of relief when Mishra and his wife are spared the harassment by the loan sharks as well as the police. It also provides a sense of satisfaction when Dada is put behind bars for the murder he had not committed, because the audience could have a justification for the same for a large number of crimes that he might have committed and gone unpunished. But this situation also brings to the fore the ideas of extra juridical murders that the state commits in the name of justice and raises complex questions about the functioning and dysfunctionality of law.
The major problem with the movie lies in its glorification/valorisation of crime. Although it provides the audience with an initial sigh of relief and satisfaction, a second thought on it raises questions about how it justifies murder, hiding and distortion of evidence by Shakti (the policeman) himself. The message of the movie is problematic in terms of not only influencing people by justifying that it is okay to take law in one’s own hands but also reemphasizing the loss of faith in institutions of law and justice, which is not at all conducive for the progress of a nation. The character of Mishra almost turns into a messiah who murders one to save others, but this very portrayal glorifies a self-imposed heroism, that definitely cannot be a solution for the larger problems addressed in the movie including corruption, lawlessness and harassment of women. Having said that, it is also important to mention that despite the shortcomings, movies like Vadh are important because they delve deeper into the complexities of human psyche and urge the audience to think and rethink about primal concepts of right and wrong, moral and immoral, and interrogate how these concepts have evolved in the perspective of the present times.
Carter, J. (2012). Reconsidering Virtue: Kant’s Moral Religion. New Blackfriars, 93(1047), 544–561. JSTOR.
Singh Sandhu, J. (Director). (2022). Vadh. Yash Raj Films; Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/watch/81554104
Staub, E. (2003). The Psychology of Good and Evil. Cambridge University Press.
Udita Banerjee is a PhD student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar. She has completed her M.Phil. from the Department of English and Culture Studies, University of Burdwan. Her research interests include Postcolonial Literature(s) and Border Studies. Her recent publications include a book chapter in Kalapani Crossings: Revisiting 19th Century Migrations from India’s Perspective (London: Routledge, 2021), edited by Ashutosh Bhardwaj and Judith Misrahi-Barak.
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