Bombay Showcase

Courtroom drama haazir ho!

A still from the film 'Court'. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Court , that brilliant and grittily real film about a Dalit activist trapped in the chakravyuha of the Indian judicial system, didn’t make it past the Oscars turnstile. A pity, because here was an entry that was really original, both conceptually and aesthetically, which actually negotiated the minefield of the Indian selection committees famous for sending duds to Los Angeles.

Court has a lot worth recommending, but what I found particularly interesting was its subversion of a very popular cinema genre in both Hollywood and Bollywood: the courtroom drama. It is a genre that allows, particularly in Bollywood, for grand oratory, life-and-death issues and edge-of-the-seat excitement.

Court ’s young director Chaitanya Tamhane, however, chose to turn it on its head with an absolutely authentic portrayal of a tedious and never-ending Indian trial, albeit with a psychological violence embedded in the dreariness. No, this surely isn’t the way it would have been in mainstream Bollywood.

Bollywood, bless its cheery soul, has regaled us for decades with its imaginative idea of what a courtroom is like.

Anyone who’s watched a reasonable number of old Hindi films will testify to the entertainment quotient of the black-robed lawyers striding up and down the courtroom, flinging ‘Milord’ and ‘Your Honour’ in the direction of the judge, who invariably vacillated between looking introspective and pounding the bench with a gavel while shouting ‘Order, order’.

Bollywood courtroom jargon, suffused with Urdu, was equally delightful, including ‘ sazaa-e-maut ’, ‘ mauka-e-waardaat ’, ‘ ba-izzat bari ’ and several other majestic-sounding triptych words.

The dialogue clichés too were awesome. (Asks the judge in at least 10 films: Par iska is case ke saath kya tallukh hai ? Replies the lawyer: Tallukh hai milord, bahut gehra tallukh hai !) Or take the solemnly pronounced guilty verdict: “ Saare gavaahon ke bayanaat aur sabooton ko madhya nazar rakhte hue, adalat is nateeje par pahunchi hai ki mujrim kusoorwaar hai aur use Tazirat-e-Hind, Dafaa 302 ke tahet sazaa-e-maut di jaati hai .” Give or take a few words, this breathlessness-inducing tongue-twister has enriched more courtroom capers than one can keep count of.

If Bollywood acquainted every layperson with IPC section 302, it similarly popularised other dry concepts like judicial adjournments with flaming drama (yes, “ Tareekh pe tareekh, tareekh pe tareekh, tareekh pe tareekh !”). At least five films I’ve seen had one similar line that tapped into real-life litigants’ extreme frustration with never-ending adjournments: “ Na court, na kachheri, na appeal na date… direct sazaa !” A vigilantism loved by audiences that that would no doubt raise liberal hackles.

Offbeat cinema has the occasional offering where fighting a legal case isn’t about high-octave histrionics. Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho about an old tenant’s quest for justice (in which, pricelessly, the prosecution and defence lawyers are literally in bed together) was one such, as was Basu Chatterjee’s thought-provoking Ek Ruka Hua Faisla about a jury deliberating a homicide trial.

India had long abandoned the jury system when Chatterjee made this adaptation of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, but that didn’t deter him. Incidentally, the last jury trial in 1959 on the famous Nanavati murder case was also the subject of a film called Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke .

Of late, Bollywood has been inching that much closer to real life with films like Hansal Mehta’s Shahid , based on real-life lawyer Shahid Azmi who was the defence counsel for many Muslims accused in terrorism cases. Or Jolly LLB , a comedy about a small town lawyer clearly derived from the Sanjeev Nanda BMW hit-and-run case.

In these films, the courtroom became more authentic and judges and lawyers moved out of the caricature mould. Indeed, Saurabh Shukla’s and Boman Irani’s superb turns as the harried magistrate and snooty, upper-crust defence lawyer in Jolly LLB were so true-to-life they could have emerged straight from a real courtroom.

Yes, Jolly LLB wasn’t flawless on the legal front, but that really is small potatoes compared to what some films have done to the law in the past.

Of the totally whacko legalities conjured by Bollywood, two are unbeatable for sheer imagination. One is the climax of Damini, in which the evil, mane-tossing defence lawyer is sentenced to imprisonment along with the accused. The second, from Rajiv Rai’s Mohra , is my favourite.

Here, a newspaper reporter sets out to help a man who’s been sentenced to life for killing his sister-in-law’s rapists after the court lets them off.

The newspaper proprietor holds a ‘special conference’ in which the judge who had presided over the trial, the police commissioner, a minister and others are ‘jury members’. By the end, the judge writes to the law ministry, and lo and behold, the convict walks free.

I wonder how Court ’s protagonist Narayan Kamble would have behaved had he been airdropped into a masala film. Would he have burst into a folk song in court lambasting the judge? Or strangled the public prosecutor for reading out the full four dreary pages of a law? Perhaps. Because, Objection Milord, death by boredom is just not acceptable in Bollywood.

(The author is a freelance writer and editor)

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 6:07:33 AM |

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