Ramshastri (1944) is considered to be one of the most important Indian films of all time — in the same way that To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) is thought to be one of the greatest American classics. The two have more in common: Both feature exemplars of the legal profession. In their very different time periods and contexts — the political intrigue-ridden world of the 18th Century Maratha India and the racism-ridden world of early 20th Century Southern America — Ramshastri and Atticus Finch boldly epitomise the ideal of judicial integrity. Atticus (actor Gregory Peck) unshakably adheres to the truth at all times the way Ramshastri (actor-director Gajanan Jagirdar) does in the eponymous film from Prabhat Film Company.
With Ramshastri, made in both Marathi and Hindi, Prabhat, famous for its socially relevant films, travelled back in time to the 18th Century Maratha Empire. Based on the life of Ramshastri Prabhune (1720-1789), the legendary chief justice at the court of Peshwa Madhavrao, the film starts with the young boy Ram who will not lie, much to the annoyance of his greedy uncle, who hopes to make money off the lie that his nephew is attending scripture school for Brahmin children.
Ram leaves home for Benares where, in Ekalavya style, he educates himself by overhearing the teacher’s lessons. Impressed, the teacher accepts Ram as his student. Twelve years roll by, and Ram is now Ramshastri.
The scene shifts to Pune, where Ramshastri settles down as a religious scholar. This part of the film appears rather disjointed, and that is probably because the film had three different directors at different times. The first instance of Ramshastri’s impartial judgment is when a slave girl faces punishment for marrying. Ramshastri argues that the slave market is an illegal institution, and his conviction wins over Peshwa Madhavrao, who appoints him as the chief justice of his court. Soon, Ramshastri becomes famous for his impartial judgments.
The film abruptly cuts to Anandi (Lalita Pawar oozing villainy), the wife of the peshwa’s uncle, Raghunathrao, colluding with the generals against the sickly peshwa. After the peshwa’s death, the heir, his younger brother, Narayanrao, takes over. Anandi, who wants her husband to be the peshwa, rewords a royal order, thereby instructing the generals to kill Narayanrao, who is then murdered. An outraged Ramshastri confronts Ragunathrao and pronounces that death is the only atonement for such a sin. Ramshastri is hailed for protecting the honour of the peshwa throne, but he decides to leave the power-mongering world of the court.
The choppiness in the film does not, however, detract from the powerful characterisation of Ramshastri.. Given the context of India’s independence movement, and Gandhi’s overriding belief in the ultimate triumph of truth, the iconic figure of Ramshastri must have been,undoubtedly, reassuring to viewers.