From the Real to the Reel: Courtroom Trials in Hindi Cinema
- Dhruva Gandhi*
In India, one of the main sites for a law and culture study is Hindi Cinema (Bollywood). It is one of the most widely appreciated features of the nation’s contemporary culture and its influence on the people of this country - across the divides of class, region, religion, gender and language - is undeniable. It is a means to understand the world, to imagine new possibilities and an opportunity for people to shape their personalities and interactions with the world outside. With this influence and outreach, several representations in Bollywood assume importance from the standpoint of law and policy - be it the State, the interaction of the State with different parts of the population, its morality, the judiciary, police, lawyers and concepts such as secularism, casteism and discrimination, to name a few. These representations influence the imagination and thereby, shape the perception, demands and priorities for a large portion of the population in such matters.
One way to understand these representations and thereby, to learn about the law is to study movies that deal with the law. Admittedly, this is a broad area to study. To limit the scope of study, in this post, I will look at all those movies that are based on or inspired by courtroom trials or cases that actually took place. These movies are unique and form a sub-set that can be studied because over seventy years, India has witnessed a plethora of intricate and fascinating cases. Yet, only a select few have been adapted into films. What was it about these trials and cases that led them to be adapted into movies is what I want to explore. Why this is important, is that it tells us in a way what kind of trials and cases appeal to the popular imagination. This tells us a little about how the law is perceived culturally, what the people expect out of the law and what areas of law and policy would they expect the State to focus on. Concomitantly, they also provoke us to think about those aspects that do not attain as much popular traction and thereby, perhaps do not feature as prominently in the policy agenda of the State.
In this post, my contention is that when Hindi Cinema has adapted trials and cases into movies, an element of corruption or harassment on part of the State has been the defining feature. To make this point, I will look at the turning points of some of these films - points where the movies took a decisive turn towards a resolution or conclusion - to show how they are all associated with a degree of harassment or corruption on part of the State. In some of them, this harassment or corruption constituted the backdrop of the script as well. I will also look at two other movies where even though State abuse was not what happened actually, scripts were tailored to make the State and State abuse in particular, the focus of the film. Finally, I will show how all these turning points, omissions and dramatizations culminate in a cry for justice in the face of State harassment and corruption.
No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ): Witnesses Turn Hostile
To consider these movies chronologically, NOKJ is a film based on the famous Jessica Lal murder case. As a bar attendant, Jessica had an altercation with the son of a politician whom she refused to serve drinks after closing hours and was shot dead for that refusal.
The movie proceeds to show the investigation and trial that followed. The accused uses the clout of his politician-father to intimidate or bribe witnesses and to tamper with the ballistic report. While there are several witnesses, four direct eye witnesses turn hostile. One of them had been standing next to Jessica when she was shot, whereas the other three saw the accused exit with a gun. Two of them are bribed by the politician and the other two are intimidated. Connections of the politician are used to have the ballistic expert say in his report that two bullets were fired on the night of the murder and that without the murder weapon being recovered it could not be said that the accused had fired the bullet which killed the victim.
Even though other eye witnesses are examined, it is the turning hostile of these four witnesses and the non-recovery of the murder weapon that leads the court (like the trial court in the actual case) to say that accused must be acquitted. The case and thereby, the movie effectively turns on these two elements.
Shahid & A Tale of Maps
In Shahid too, we notice how the main case, as also the movie turn decisively on a couple of such elements. This movie is based on the life and career of Shahid Azmi, an advocate who defended several poor, innocent Muslims falsely accused of participating in terror attacks. Other than his personal life and struggles, the movie also depicts the 26/11 case that Shahid fought. In this case, Shahid defends one Mr. Faheem Ansari. The prosecution contends that Faheem visited Mumbai before the 26/11 attacks to prepare a sketch of certain routes and sites. Then, he travelled to Nepal to hand them over to his superiors who passed it on to the actual terrorists. It examines two witnesses, one of whom says that he saw Faheem hand the maps over to his superiors in Nepal. The prosecution also produces the map that Faheem had allegedly prepared and that was recovered from the body of a slain terrorist.
As a defence counsel, Shahid exposes the shoddy investigation on part of the State. As to the map, he asks, why did it not have any crease(s) if it had exchanged so many hands? Why did it not have any bloodstains if it was recovered from the body of a slain terrorist? And, why would terrorists want to use a hand-drawn sketch when a lot more details could be found on the internet? As to the witnesses, he asks the first one the name of the hotel he stayed at in Nepal, the airline he travelled by and the likes. The witness is unable to answer. Shahid then tells the court that it is surprising how he remembers the handing over of the map, but not any other basic detail about the trip. The testimony of the other witness is immaterial.
Like the actual trial, Shahid does not lead any evidence. Instead, he casts doubt on the prosecution case by highlighting the ineffectiveness of the investigation and the fallacies in the police version. And, the case turns on this. The judge is convinced that there is sufficient doubt and acquits Faheem. The movie, too, takes a decisive turn at this point as it is soon after Shahid has presented these arguments that he is shot dead in his office.
What we see then in both NOKJ and Shahid is that the turning points in the actual case and in the trials as depicted in the movies bear a direct nexus with an element of corruption or harassment on part of the State. In NOKJ, the outcome of the trial was determined by how the politician-father of the accused used his influence to manipulate the system. In Shahid, it was the uncovering in court of a potentially fake investigation and of the harassment of a poor, Muslim youth by the State that led to an acquittal. This nexus is even seen in the movie Court. Admittedly, Court is not a Bollywood film. However, the critical acclaim and the international recognition it received do make the movie important for our consideration.
Court: The Witch-Hunt of a Singer
Court is a movie inspired by the cases that were lodged against the Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural troupe that voices dalit and working class issues in Maharashtra. The protagonist is a teacher-activist-performer who is accused of abetting the suicide of a manual scavenger through one of the poems he wrote and performed. When the case against him weakens and he is released on bail, they charge him under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2008 (“UAPA”).
The last courtroom scene in the movie is for a fresh grant of bail. The prosecution reads out the definition of an unlawful activity under the UAPA and says that the protagonist inspired disaffection against India and sought to disrupt her (its?) sovereignty. She says that the charges involved are of a serious nature and bail must be denied. The defence submits that the definition deals with acts of violence. His client was only writing, publishing and performing poetry. In fact, he stops short of saying that this is a witch-hunt by the State. The judge does not engage with this contention at all. For him, it is sufficient that the accused was charged under the UAPA and that the State was of the opinion that the crime was of a serious nature. He refuses to grant bail.
The movie takes a poignant turn at this point. The hearing was the last of the day and the last before the vacations. The director then takes a still-shot of the courtroom as it shuts down and allows the audience to reflect on what just happened in the bail hearing, before the movie proceeds to its climax. We see yet again, therefore, how a turning point in the case and in the movie is intricately linked to harassment through the State machinery.
The Vulnerable Protagonist
This observation is bolstered when one looks at the profile of the clients in most of these movies. While this does not indicate directly that there was harassment by the State, it does show how surrounding circumstances of the case allowed for it. In NOKJ, the protagonists are at a distinct pecuniary disadvantage as compared to the other side. Jessica’s family belongs to the middle class, leads an ordinary life and does not have financial wherewithal to even come close to matching the bribes that the accused’s politician-father pays to turn witnesses hostile. In Shahid, not only are his clients very poor, they are also Muslim youth who are rounded up after terror attacks largely because of their religion. Even in Court, the protagonist belongs to the lower middle class, lives in the slums of Mumbai and can barely afford to pay his legal fees. He also belongs to a lower caste.
The protagonists of these films thus are vulnerable to harassment by State officials because of a disadvantage in terms of class, caste or religion. Had the protagonists been shown as wealthy industrialists or well-qualified professionals, the contention that the determinative points bear a nexus to State abuse could have differed. Abuse of State machinery could then have possibly been interpreted as the use of foul play in a high-stakes legal battle and not necessarily as an instance of harassment.
Dramatizations & Omissions
In addition to these films, there are two more movies that are based on actual trials - Jolly LL.B. and Rustom. What is interesting about these is that even when the actual events did not involve the theme of corruption, scripts were tailored to make State corruption the focus of the film.
Rustom is based on the Nanavati case, one of the most sensational crimes to have taken place in India. K.M. Nanavati shot to death one Ahuja, who was having an affair with his wife. The prosecution had contended that Nanavati wanted to exact revenge and that it was a pre-meditated murder. The defence pleaded that Nanavati was suicidal and that Ahuja had been shot accidentally in the course of a struggle. Evidently, the trial centred round Nanavati’s frame of mind and the chain of events as they occurred at Ahuja’s residence.
Rustom could have used these two aspects as the centrepiece of the plot to create a captivating criminal trial. Instead, it introduced an entirely new dimension in an attempt to make the plot interesting. In the movie, Ahuja (Makhija) is a corrupt industrialist who conspires with Rustom’s (i.e. Nanavati) seniors to acquire a worn out aircraft carrier from the United Kingdom. They try to bribe Rustom, who is charged with preparing a fitness report of the carrier, but he refuses to falsify the report. As a consequence, Makhija loses the contract and to exact revenge, seduces his wife (Cynthia). While Rustom is upset with Cynthia, he soon forgives her and she, too, is shown as assisting him in his battle against the conspirators. He is then shown as having shot Makhija not because he had an affair with his wife, but because he wanted to arrest the naval scam.
None of these details though are presented in court because Rustom does not want people to lose faith in the Indian Navy. The trial is limited to the extra-marital affair and is effectively, only a veneer under which lies a larger scam involving State interests. This added dimension gives one the impression that the details of the trial and the personality of Rustom were not sufficient, in the opinion of the filmmakers, to appeal to the audience. Instead, a controversy involving the State was needed to do so.
A similar dramatization is also seen in Jolly LL.B., a movie based on the Sanjeev Nanda case. In this case, Sanjeev Nanda had when driving a BMW under the influence of alcohol in the wee hours of the morning run over six people sleeping on the footpath. In this case, the testimonies of three witnesses became important. Two turned hostile and a third was supressed by collusion between the prosecution and the defence. This third witness was summoned by the court and asked to testify. His testimony along with the intoxication reports formed the basis of the trial court judgement that held Sanjeev Nanda liable for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The High Court disagreed with the trial court, found the testimony of the star witness unreliable and convicted the accused only for causing death by a rash or negligent act, a lesser offence.
Jolly LL.B. focusses on these issues selectively. Whereas the corruption on part of the defence counsel is shown in explicit terms, the nuances in the testimony of the star witness, its reliability and the presence of other physical evidence such as tyre marks are barely explored. Instead, the movie supplements the corruption of the defence counsel with an instance of State corruption. One of the people who had been run over and was suspected to be dead is shown to have survived. Soon after the accident, the investigating officer is bribed to kill the lone survivor so that he may not be able to testify. However, when he is about to kill him, the survivor offers the investigating officer his life’s savings in exchange for letting him go. The protagonist lawyer (Jolly) wants to use this survivor as his star witness. Jolly is then shown battling the corrupt officers and surviving attacks made on his life to discover this witness and present him in court.
Therefore, it is seen once again how aspects of the actual case are trimmed to allow functionaries of the State to feature more prominently on the reel.
A Call for Justice
Till now, I have shown how harassment or corruption through the machinery of the State was or was somehow made the common theme across these cinematic adaptations. This observation is fortified when one sees how these movies resolve this theme. Almost all of them have a scene or a monologue where a prominent character laments about the injustice of the situation or makes a plea for justice to be done. The harassment is made to assume centre-stage and a need is conveyed to address it.
A movie where this is done most conspicuously is Jolly LL.B. After the completion of the trial, we see the judge lament about the failings of the system. He says that he knows from the very commencement of the trial whether or not the accused is guilty. Even then, he cannot do anything because corrupt forces prevent sufficient evidence from being introduced. He is then left with no option but to acquit and the powerful get away with crime. NOKJ also conveys a similar message. After the conclusion of the trial, the second protagonist of the film - a news broadcaster - asks whether justice was done. She presents the sting operation of the witnesses who turned hostile and asks whether money and power were used to manipulate the system.
Shahid touches upon this theme of justice in a situation where a victim of abuse is pitted against the might of the State differently. Both the opening and the concluding scenes of the movie show us a quote by Ray Black that inspired Shahid in his litigation practice. It says, “By showing me injustice, he taught me to love justice” and thus, makes a powerful point in the context of the cases Shahid argues.
Even Court provokes the spectator’s notions of justice. In this movie, we see how bail is denied to the protagonist because he is charged under the UAPA even when all he did was write and publish poems. After this scene, the movie shows us the life of the judge. The judge goes for a picnic with his family and at the destination is in conversation with a relative whose son suffers from a speaking disorder. The relative tells him about the medical treatment his son has taken. The judge replies that while it may be alright to take medicines, what would help his son the most is ritualistic practices. The disorder would be cured swiftly if he made his son wear a ring on a particular finger. After that, the judge is shown as taking a nap when certain kids decide to play a prank. The judge is woken out of his sleep and he slaps one of the children who played the prank.
In back to back scenes, the movie thus draws a connection between the denial of bail and the ideology of the judge. The slap as well as the preceding conversation makes us think about the appropriate judicial response in a situation where the State abuses ordinary citizens in the garb of serious offences. They make us think whether the accused got a fair hearing and whether the denial of bail was a just outcome.
We thus see how all these movies want to appeal to our notion of justice and justice in a scenario where ordinary citizens with humble backgrounds find themselves as victims of abuse at the hands of politicians, law enforcement officials and other such functionaries of the State. And, we therefore see how it is a particular type of cases that is depicted on the reel in Hindi Cinema.
Although in a limited fashion, this tells us what about the legal system appeals culturally to the audiences of Hindi Cinema, what provokes their notions of justice and what they prioritise in terms of expectations from the State and policy reforms. In a way, it also informs us of those issues with the system that are marginalised in public discourse. Resultantly, the comparative analysis offers one possible perspective to appreciate the attention devoted by the State to policy objectives vis-a-vis the legal system.
As a concluding thought, the fact that only one type of cases has by and large been adapted, assumes added relevance when one accounts for ‘passive voice’. A movie is in a passive voice when it conveys a fixed meaning to its audiences as opposed to engaging with them in a critical dialogue and letting them draw their own meaning. A lot of movies in Bollywood are said to be made in the passive voice. This is true even for most of the movies analysed here. NOKJ, Jolly LL.B., Rustom and Shahid are all in the passive voice. When considered alongside the influence of Bollywood and the fact that it may be the only source of information about law and justice for several audiences, a passive voice implies that a certain image of the State, lawyers, judges and the dichotomy between law and justice at certain junctures is conveyed. Perceptions then of the judicial system too, come to be constituted accordingly.
*Dhruva Gandhi is a 5th year student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
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 Admittedly, there may have been many more instances when a legal case was bogged down by dishonesty and deceit on part of State officials. Why then, one may ask, were only these instances converted into motion pictures? While there are no ready answers to this question, one of the possible reasons could be that five of these cases received extensive news media coverage. While there are also several other cases that receive similar news media focus and why they have not been converted into movies is definitely a ponderable. Nevertheless, this is a commonality in the movies analysed in the paper and hence, could be a possible factor. Future research in this area could uncover some interesting facts.
See M.K. Raghavendra, Seduced by the Familiar, 45-46 (2008).