Saturday, September 12, 2015

Too much order in the court

[This is the first entry in my new fortnightly film column, "Above the Line", for Mint Lounge]

In conversations about the New Hindi Cinema – you know, the one that is breaking away from hyper-dramatic traditions and sometimes replacing them with an equally simplistic hyper-realism – the courtroom scene becomes a benchmark for how far we have come from the supposed sins of the past. Those sins included the wails of “Milord!”, the sonorous pronouncements of “Taazi-raat-e-Hind” and “Sazaaye Maut”, the grandstanding, the ornate dialogue that no real-world judge, lawyer or defendant would be heard chanting even in their bathrooms. Or the canted-angle zoom shots, as quaint as rotary-dial telephones, of Justice with her scales.

It is a very long way indeed from Sunny Deol’s snarling “taareekh pe taareekh pe taareekh” in the 1993 Damini to the deliberately static, held shot of a lawyer reading out a lengthy statement about a case in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, her voice as inexpressive and bored as the voices of Deol or Amrish Puri were emotion-drenched; here are two immensely different cinematic ways of making a similar point about how soul-sapping – and detrimental to a plaintiff’s interests – a long-drawn-out case can be. In other contemporary films like Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, the shots of lawyers bickering in court and fumbling over documents have the spare, naturalistic feel of Cinéma Vérité – on view here is not the stylized courtroom where lies and truth are in timeless conflict but a more mundane setting where hassled, sweat-soaked people speak legalese almost mechanically. Meanwhile films like Jolly LLB and OMG exist in a medium space, not using handheld-camera shots but not venturing towards the excesses of an earlier age either.

While thinking very highly of these films, I bristle at the implication that the “understated” courtroom scene is inherently superior to the other sort. Judge not the mode, judge its execution. Like anything else, the florid scene can be done well or poorly. When done well, it
always reminds me of the grand climax of Michael Powell’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death, where the fate of a British airman (he has accidentally been left alive because the “conductor” who was supposed to escort him to the after-world messed up; now what to do?) becomes the pretext for a celestial trial and the examining of lofty ideas such as the meaning of love and the nature of civilization.

In the Hindi-film context, I love old-style courtroom scenes when they are done with verve, and when they fit a given situation – a classic example being in Waqt, where Balraj Sahni’s Lala Kedarnath is reunited with his family against the backdrop of a murder trial, and the kacheri scenes serve a clear dramatic function in a story that is already much larger than life. Look at everything at stake here: the freedom of an innocent accused, the happiness of a large family that has been through so much since they were sundered by an earthquake decades earlier. Milord ki kasam, with such a scenario, why would you want things to be presented in drily realistic terms!

So, to a degree, the difference in form is dictated by the type of case. But it isn’t always that straightforward either. Consider the 1984 Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!, in which Balraj Sahni’s brother Bhisham plays a poor man trying only to get his crumbling chawl home fixed. Since the scale has been pared down from the Grand Court of mainstream Hindi cinema to the Small Cause Court of the cinema of struggle, those who haven’t actually seen this film might think it is “quiet” and “subdued”. Actually, it is about as subdued as Jaane bhi do Yaaro, whose manic, college-skit mode it closely mimics at times (and which had involved many of the same cast and crew members). To depict the numbing passage of time during a trial, it employs an absurdist mode that is at a remove from both the straight-faced realism of a Court and the straight-faced melodrama of a Damini: scenes are presented as speeded-up vignettes, the courtroom bell clangs – to announce a recess – in the middle of an intense argument, and everyone instantly relaxes; the Naseeruddin Shah character sighs “Teen saal guzar gaye”, and we see that he now has a moustache. Such moments are played for laughs, but then we see old, feeble Mohan Joshi in the background and the laugh sticks in the throat.

In any case, quick judgements about courtroom scenes tend to over-simplify the issue of “realism” in cinema. Fact: even in the real world, even when voices are lowered and there is no overt dialogue-baazi, a courtroom can be very similar to a rangmanch, and there is usually a degree of performance involved. Lawyers, the plaintiff, the accused, even witnesses present a carefully thought out version of themselves for maximum impact; the history of famous real-world trials teaches us that, fair or not, life-changing
judgements are sometimes based on first impressions. Writing about the 1959 Anatomy of a Murder, one of the finest courtroom dramas ever made (and I emphasise “drama”), Kim Newman observed that James Stewart and George C Scott played their parts with a real understanding of how lawyers “have to be not only great actors but stars, assuming personalities that exaggerate their inner selves and weighing every outburst and objection for the effect it has on the poor saps in the jury box”.

This is not, of course, to imply that lawyers are always that way, in every situation – the sad-faced lady in Court, circles under her eyes, clearly weighed down by her routine in a drab courtroom (and after working hours, at home), looks like she is barely interested in being herself, much less acting out an exaggerated version of herself. But give her an exciting case, a better-lit and ventilated courtroom and an opponent willing to challenge her with a few flourishes, and who knows, even she might be temporarily transformed.


[Here's an old post about the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, in which two acting titans, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy, play lawyers who are constantly performing, in court and outside]


  1. Very true. I agree that court scenes need not be realistic in order to be effective. Case in point - Witness for the Prosecution. The humor of the judge, the repartee between prosecution and defence counsels, although stylized, are very effective and entertaining.

  2. While thinking very highly of these films, I bristle at the implication that the “understated” courtroom scene is inherently superior to the other sort. Judge not the mode, judge its execution. >>
    Brilliant. This is why I like your blog. Too many critics keep on attacking the commercial cinema and praising some other form which is their favorite.

    1. Thanks, Raj. And yes, I hope to be addressing some of that anti-mainstream cinema snobbery in future pieces too.

  3. By the way, "Anatomy of a murder is one of my favorite movies."

  4. I came across your piece in the Saturday edition of Mint. As a law student (more specifically one doing a rare film and law course in India), I was delighted to see writing exploring the intersectionality of law and cinema in India. Please do consider writing more. You have an extremely interested law school/law professor/lawyer audience out there.

  5. The judge in Anatomy of a Murder was a judge in real life too, if I remember correctly. He is the best part of the movie, witnessing the highly absurd and dramatic arguments with amused indulgence. Good fun!

  6. Nitpicking here but 'Taazi-raat' would translate to fresh-night. 'Tazirat-e-Hind' is the Indian penal code.