Starring Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Nanda, Jeevan, Om Prakash, Mehmood

To hang or not! Capital punishment has been a subject of debate for long and this one has roots five decades back in a path-breaking movie that questions the wisdom of handing a sentence based solely on the claims of the eye-witnesses or just an eye-witness, as is the case in “Kanoon”. Should one man’s word cost another his life?

It was India’s first movie that did not feature a song. It required none; such was the compelling work of B.R. Chopra in this courtroom drama. Most distributors were reportedly apprehensive when they were invited for a preview. It was hard to accept a movie that did not have a song. And this was when music and romance dominated the Hindi film industry. It was set for release in the year that also featured “Mughal-E-Azam”, “Kohinoor”, “Anuradha”, “Chaudhvin Ka Chand”, “Kala Bazaar”, “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai”….all major hits in 1960 with music being a key component.

True to BR tradition, “Kanoon” was a movie with a social theme but then the apprehensions of the distributors were justified. They were not sure how the audience would receive the movie. It was a huge experiment that BR gambled with.

Stunning twist

At the interval, BR was keen to know the reaction. A silence greeted him. He is said to have offered to insert a couple of songs. He had a ready remedy in music director Salil Choudhury. The stunning twist at the end was the clinching factor. BR was requested by the distributors they preferred the movie as it was, without a song. It was, in their opinion, a masterpiece.

Thus history was made. A film without a song won the hearts of the audience all over. It was a raging hit and it was hardly surprising that BR won the Filmfare honours for his impeccable direction. The court room scenes, with some arresting situational dialogues, and the suspense are simply captivating. Old timers compare them with the spellbinding stuff that made “Witness For The Prosecution” such a remarkable drama. BR was to make another song less film – “Ittefaq” – with Nanda in a very significant role, unlike in “Kanoon”. He once again used cinema to trigger another legal debate on the subject of crime and punishment years later in “Insaaf Ka Taraazu”.

The plot in “Kanoon” is engrossing. Kaalia (Jeevan) pleads guilty to a murder charge even as he claims that judge Badri Prasad (Ashok Kumar) cannot sentence him. Kaalia has served a sentence for the same man’s murder. The case creates a sensation in the legal fraternity.

Badri Prasad’s prospective son-in-law, Kailash Khanna (Rajendra Kumar), is a lawyer. Meena (Nanda) is Kailash’s love. The judge’s son Vijay (Mehmood) borrows heavily from Dhaniram, a money lender (Om Prakash) and pleads with Kailash to bail him out.

The lawyer visits the money lender but hides behind a curtain as he watches the judge walk into the room. The subsequent scene takes the viewer on a gripping journey.

Kailash is witness to Badri Prasad stabbing the money lender to death. The judge leaves the scene of the crime which is now open to a petty thief (Nana Palsikar). The thief is caught and charged with murder. Kailash, standing up for the innocent man, triggers a series of developments that leave the viewer in a daze.

Resounding climax

The movie progresses at a rapid pace to reach a resounding climax as Rajendra Kumar gives one of his most memorable performances. He is at his best when, in a taut close-up, his voice at a high pitch, he points his finger at the judge and accuses him, “Dhaniram ke katil aap hain.”

A scene that captures a five-minute silence, with the pendulum in focus, in the courtroom is a BR master-stroke. Salil Choudhury heightens the drama with subtle use of sound in the background.

Ashok Kumar’s character grows as the movie unfolds. He is convincing as an upright judge, not known to award capital punishment. But the star of the second half is Nana Palsikar, who slips into the role of a petty thief with a commanding performance that fetched him the best supporting actor award.