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Tag: law in cinema (page 1 of 3)

12 Angry Men (1957) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986) – The Courtroom as Red Herring

SayakDasgupta_InCameraIn 1973, a boy named Kevin Edward Noonan took his high school sweetheart to watch a screening of a 1957 movie. She had just earned a full scholarship to Princeton and was considering going to law school in the future. Perhaps he hoped that watching a classic legal drama would inspire her. And it did. She was especially moved by a scene at around the hour mark in which an immigrant speaks about the greatness of the American judicial system. “This, I have always thought, is a remarkable thing about democracy,” he says. “That we are… what is the word? Notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place to decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have never heard of before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong.” The young girl, whose only legal inspiration till then had been Perry Mason, was blown away. “I had never thought about the juries and their function until I saw this movie,” she later said. “This was my very first inspiration. When the watchmaker in that scene talked about the greatness of democracy being the jury system? It sold me.” The movie was 12 Angry Men, and the girl was Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to become a judge at the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Origin Story

12 Angry Men was originally written as a fifty-minute teleplay in 1954 by Reginald Rose, one of a group of bright, socially-conscious up-and-coming screenwriters of the ‘50s – a decade known as the golden age of television drama in the US (much like the present decade) – that included such legends as Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Rose was inspired by his own experience of jury duty on a manslaughter case in New York City. Initially, he had been reluctant to serve on a jury, but, as he wrote later: “the moment I walked into the courtroom… and found myself facing a strange man whose fate was suddenly more or less in my hands, my entire attitude changed.” The gravity of the situation, the sombre activity of the court, and the “absolute finality” of the decision of the jurors made a deep impact on him. He felt that since no one other than the jurors had any idea of what went on in a jury room, “a play taking place entirely within a jury room might be an exciting and possibly moving experience for an audience”.

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Opening pages of the stage play book

The result was a taut, gripping story about a jury that must decide the fate of a young Hispanic boy who has been accused of murdering his father. Eleven of the jurors believe that he is guilty, but only one man is unconvinced, and what proceeds is a tense debate on the facts of the case, a dismantling of all the ostensibly damning evidence, and also an airing of social stigmas and ingrained prejudices. A play written in the ‘50s will obviously have its attendant problems of representation; it might as well have been called “12 Straight White Men”. There are no women or persons of colour in the jury. But the plot allows for a range of characters fitting various archetypes. This becomes especially clear from the notes on characters and costumes in the stage play adaptation. Juror No. 2 is “a meek, hesitant man who finds it difficult to maintain any opinions of his own,” whereas Juror No. 3 is “very strong, forceful, extremely opinionated […] intolerant of opinions other than his own, and accustomed to forcing his wishes and views upon others.” Juror No. 7 is “a loud, flashy, glad-handed salesman type who has more important things to do than sit on a jury,” and is, basically “a bully, and, of course, a coward”, whereas Juror No. 11 “is a refugee from Europe […] who speaks with an accent and is ashamed, humble, almost subservient to the people around him.” There is the “man of wealth and position” who feels “a little bit above the rest of the jurors and whose “only concern is with the facts in the case”, and there is a “slick, bright advertising man who thinks of human beings in terms of percentages, graphs and polls”. Our hero, Juror No. 8 is a “quiet, thoughtful, gentle man”, a man “who wants justice to be done, and will fight to see that it is.” In other words, he is a lone warrior fighting an uphill battle against a room full of men opposed to him; an underdog fighting for another underdog. These are all tried and tested archetypes and they work really well.

Film Adaptations

The teleplay was adapted into a film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda. Although the film didn’t fair very well at the box office, it gained almost universal critical acclaim, and is considered one of the most influential films ever made. The American Film Institute ranked it second in its list of the top 10 courtroom dramas of all time, just behind To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), an interesting decision given that an actual courtroom only appears in the film for less than 2 minutes; the rest of the film’s 96-minute running time plays out in an increasingly claustrophobic jury deliberation room. But there is no doubting its influence. It was remade as a television film forty years later by acclaimed director William Friedkin starring George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon and James Gandolfini. In fact, it has been repeatedly remade in various languages in various countries around the world, including Germany, Norway, Japan, Russia, France, China and, of course, India, despite the fact that most of these countries do not even have a judicial system that mandates jury trials.

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The Indian version, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, directed by Basu Chatterjee and starring Pankaj Kapur, M.K. Raina and Annu Kapoor was made in 1986. At a run time of 127 minutes, it is half-an-hour longer than the original, but is a more-or-less faithful translation. And I do mean that quite literally. The jurors have the same personalities and even correspond to the same numbers as in the original. Many of the dialogues are direct Hindustani translations of the original English lines. Even some of the jokes are repeated. The racism and prejudice against Hispanics, immigrants and slum-dwellers displayed by some of the jurors in 12 Angry Men have been cleverly reflected in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla as upper-caste bigotry against minorities and the rising hatred for South Indian immigrants in Bombay that was being fuelled by right-wing groups at the time.

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Scenes from 12 Angry Men (left) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (right)

The Jury Is Still Out

But the thing to note here is that by 1986, the jury trial was long dead in India. There is nothing in the film to suggest that it is a period film based in the ‘50s when jury trials still happened, and yet there is no explanation for a jury in this case. In the Chinese adaptation, 12 Citizens (2014), the twelve men are assembled from different walks of life to form a mock jury as part of an experiment in a law school, a set-up that makes sense. As we had discussed in our video on the Nanavati trial earlier this year, the East India Company had introduced the jury trial in India as Englishmen considered it their right to be judged by a jury of their peers. However, even under the British Raj, English lawyers felt that Indians did not make good jurors as they were deemed to be irrational, swayed by superstition and religion and incapable of understanding the English language in which court proceedings were conducted. Various law commission reports suggested the abolition of the jury trial, the final one being the 41st Law Commission Report published in 1969. The Nanavati case is widely regarded as the nail in the coffin of the jury trial, which was done away with in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

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Justice Y.V. Chandrachud (Image from supremecourtofindia.nic.in)

The public prosecutor in the Nanavati trial was Y.V. Chandrachud, who would go on to become the Chief Justice of India. It was during his tenure as Chief Justice that he was a part of the five-judge bench that presided over the landmark case of Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab AIR 1980 SC 898, in which he and three of his brother judges upheld the validity of the death sentence under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The only dissenting voice was that of Justice Bhagwati who felt that the death penalty was unconstitutional. However, the most important aspect of the judgment was the court’s pronouncement that the death penalty should only be given in the “rarest of rare cases”. In Ek Ruka Hua Faisla as in 12 Angry Men, the judge tells the jurors that if they found the accused guilty, he would be automatically sentenced to death. While this certainly raises the stakes in the films and makes the decision far more difficult, one wonders if a boy would be sentenced to death in India for killing his violent, abusive father keeping in mind the fact that there have been only 56 death penalty cases in Maharashtra since 1947. There are other basic inaccuracies that a layman might miss, but are glaring errors for lawyers who are familiar with the jury system. For example, in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, one of the jurors is shown casually reading a newspaper just before deliberations begin. Anyone who is familiar with jury trials knows that jurors are completely sequestered during the pendency of the trial and are denied access to newspapers, television and any form of mass media in order to keep them absolutely unbiased. Similarly, while I am not an expert in American criminal law, it seemed improper of the judge in 12 Angry Men to tell the jury that a guilty verdict would necessarily attract the death penalty. It is my understanding that once the jury has given its verdict the judge sets a date for sentencing. Before that date, a pre-sentence investigation is carried out to help the judge determine the appropriate sentence. The pre-sentence investigation may consider the defendant’s prior criminal record, background, possible mitigating circumstances of the crime, the likelihood of successful probationary sentence, and suggested programmes for rehabilitation. It seems a little presumptuous of the judge to offer a foregone conclusion to the jurors before any of this has been done.

Flawed Greatness

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

But ultimately, there is no point in getting hung up on legal inaccuracies in a film, where the aim is to build tension and keep the audience engaged. While all the characters in the films are interesting, arguably the most important character is mostly invisible: the court. And while 12 Angry Men is a great film that had a positive impact on many people, it is not without its flaws. Justice Sotomayor, who counts the film among her major inspirations, admitted that, as a lower-court judge, she referred to it to instruct jurors on how not to carry out their duties. While speaking about the film in Fordham University in 2010, she said: “I would bring up this movie and explain to them that some of the things that happened, shouldn’t have happened. There’s an awful lot of speculation in the film.” The courtroom proceedings in the film are portrayed as a complete shambles. The defence attorney is described as incompetent and uninterested in the case. However, Sotomayor went further and also criticised the unseen prosecutor, stating that the job of the prosecutor is not merely to convict people, but also to investigate thoroughly beforehand to ensure the defendant’s guilt.

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Scenes from 12 Angry Men (left) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (right)

Like many other films based on the law, 12 Angry Men is suspicious of the judicial system and reposes more faith in the efforts and ingenuity of one bright individual warrior for the cause of truth. The largely absent courtroom in the film is cast less as a facilitator of justice and more as a hindrance, where lazy, bored and cynical officers of the court do a shoddy job of conducting a trial, subverting the judicial process, making it a farcical exercise. Rather than bringing some clarity to the case, the courtroom manages to mislead all but one man, making it the largest red herring in the history of crime. The twelve men, it would seem, have every right to be angry.

Written by myLaw

Inherit the Wind (1960) – The Courtroom as Soapbox

SayakDasgupta_InCameraIn 1960, John T. Scopes, a geologist, returned to Dayton, a town in Tennessee where 35 years earlier, he had been convicted of a crime. Instead of being scorned and spurned, he was celebrated and awarded a key to the city. He had returned to attend the premiere of Inherit the Wind, a film that had been made on his trial. The film, boasting of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, was supposed to tell the true story of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, but it didn’t. Its intention was to use the trial to make a very different point. Then again, even the original trial was not much more than a farce.

The making of the film trial

On January 21, 1925 Rep. John Washington Butler introduced a bill in the Tennessee House of Representatives “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.” The Butler Act, as it came to be known, was enacted six days later. This ban on teaching evolution in public schools in Tennessee was reported in newspapers all over America and came to the notice of a young organisation in New York called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which advocated for freedom of thought and expression regardless of political leanings. It put out a notice in newspapers inviting any teacher from Tennessee to challenge the law. “We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing the law in the courts,” it said. “Our lawyers think a friendly test can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job. Distinguished counsel have volunteered their services. All we need is a willing client.” Enter George Washington Rappleyea.

George Rappleyea, the man who wanted to put Dayton on the map.

George Rappleyea, the man who wanted to put Dayton on the map.

Rappleyea was the Superintendent of the financially floundering Cumberland Coal and Iron Company in Dayton, Tennessee. He read ACLU’s notice and the very next day, met a group of influential men of Dayton and suggested that the law should be challenged in their town. He foresaw that the resulting trial would bring national attention and definitely put Dayton on the map – something that must have appealed to everyone as Dayton was going through hard times. Rappleyea convinced a young schoolteacher called John T. Scopes to be the challenger even though Scopes couldn’t remember if he had actually ever taught evolution in his classroom.

None of these events leading up to the trial are shown in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind. The film begins with Bertram Cates (Dick York), a fictionalised version of John Scopes, teaching evolution openly in a Southern town called Hillsboro. While Scopes was ambivalent about the law until Rappleyea convinced him to challenge it, Cates is presented almost as a heroic crusader completely unwavering in his noble convictions. None of the prior machinations that led to the original trial are even alluded to.

A well-known reporter named E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) comes to Hillsboro to cover the trial. Amidst his sarcastic quips and witty one-liners, he informs Cates that his employer, the Baltimore Herald, is willing to finance his defence. The acerbic, cynical Hornbeck is the fictional cognate of H.L. Mencken, the famous and influential reporter who covered the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial. Mencken was a staunch atheist and detested fundamentalists and “southern yokels”, calling them “ignoramuses” and “morons”. He was also a racist and anti-Semite who distrusted democracy deeply, which made him a natural opponent of the prosecution attorney: William Jennings Bryan.

Above, Gene Kelly and Dick York playing E.K. Horseback and Bertram Cates in Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, H.L. Mencken the journalist and John T. Scopes the geologist (right), the real-life figures that these actors portrayed.

Above, Gene Kelly and Dick York playing E.K. Hornbeck and Bertram Cates in Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, H.L. Mencken the journalist and John T. Scopes the geologist (right), the real-life figures that these actors portrayed.

The prosecuting attorney in Inherit the Wind, Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is a Bible-thumping, chicken-devouring, moralising caricature of Bryan. Everything about the look of the character – from his baldpate to his pince-nez to the cut of his shirt – is modeled to be identical to that of Bryan’s. In many ways ahead of his time, Bryan had spent a lifetime fighting for farmers, women’s suffrage, and campaign finance reforms, and raising his voice against imperialism and corrupt corporate practices in the early 1900s. But all we see is a screaming blowhard trying desperately to cling to his woefully outdated beliefs. A Bible literalist, his distaste for the theory of evolution came not just from his religious views but also from his mistaken conflation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the concept of Social Darwinism – a system of thought that often rationalises racism, eugenics, fascism, and imperialism.

Above, Spencer Tracy and Frederic March playing Mathew Harrison Brady, the prosecuting attorney and Henry Drummond, the defense attorney in a scene from Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the lawyers who came up against each other in the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial.

Above, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March playing Mathew Harrison Brady, the prosecuting attorney and Henry Drummond, the defense attorney in a scene from Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the lawyers who came up against each other in the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial.

Cates’ defense attorney is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), a fictionalised version of Clarence Darrow, who, in 1925 was perhaps the most famous lawyer in the country, having argued a number of high profile cases. Like Mencken, Darrow was a modernist and atheist, inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Voltaire. He had once been a friend of Bryan and had even supported him in his first presidential campaign, but the two had later parted ways due to the stark differences in their thinking (a fact that is reflected in the film as well). When he heard Bryan had joined the prosecution team, Darrow immediately decided to join the defence to battle “the idol of all Morondom”.

The greatest show in America

Scenes from Inherit The Wind (1960)

Scenes from Inherit The Wind (1960)

The film accurately portrays the media circus this trial became. In an unprecedented turn of events WGN Radio managed to obtain the rights to rearrange the way the courtroom was set up. Despite a burning heat wave in Dayton that year, hundreds of people crowded into the courtroom to witness this clash of titans and their ideas. Journalists sat with typewriters and microphones recording every instant of this great show as if it were a boxing match. Outside the courtroom was a veritable carnival centred around the trial. Shops sold monkey-themed memorabilia, songs written about the trial were sung on the streets, and a pet chimpanzee named Joe Mendy was brought out in a new suit everyday for the amusement of one and all. This fanfare is faithfully portrayed in Inherit the Wind. The people of Dayton, however, are not.

The film paints the residents of Hillsboro (read Dayton) as an angry, ignorant mob ready to lynch Cates. This was, by all accounts, patently untrue. Even Mencken wrote, “The town, I must confess, greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty […] Nor is there any evidence in the town of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself when Christian men gather to defend the great doctrine of their faith. […] On the contrary, the Evolutionists and Anti-Evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard to distinguish one group from another.”

From the beginning, Judge Raulston had instructed the jury, prosecution, and defence to keep the trial about the case in hand – Scopes’ contravention of the Butler Act – and not to argue whether the law itself was just or unjust. Of course, neither Darrow nor Bryan had any intention of obeying the judge. As far as both were concerned, this was the most important philosophical and cultural tipping point in their lifetimes. It was the debate that would decide what civilisation itself stands for. Scopes’ ultimate fate meant very little to Darrow. In fact, he hoped that Scopes would be found guilty so that he could appeal to a higher court and argue the merits of the Butler Act there.

The verdict

In the end, the jury in the film, like the one in real life, returns a verdict of “guilty”. And, like the judge in the actual trial, the one in the film goes easy on the defendant, keeping in view the mood of the nation. Cates, like Scopes, is fined $100 and given no jail time. In a sense, both Bryan and Darrow got what they wanted. Bryan got a guilty verdict and, hence, a moral victory, even though he was displeased with the inadequacy of the sentence. Darrow got the opportunity to argue the validity of the law at the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In the film, as indeed in real life, the trial was not really about the case at hand but an opportunity to argue about differing viewpoints, the lawyers on both sides representing not the state and the accused, but two opposing schools of thought. The courtroom became a venue for debating ideology, a soapbox atop which each lawyer, acting as the spokesperson for his side, could stand and deliver loud and impassioned political speeches. So impassioned, in fact, that Brady quite literally screams himself to death. He collapses in the courtroom and dies of a “busted belly”. It is the death knell of an ideology whose time has come. In real life, Bryan had died five days after the trial was over. This too, is a minor liberty.

Charles Darwin, the title page of The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex (1871) and a figure from the book.

Charles Darwin, the title page of The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex (1871), and a figure from the book.

The film, therefore, takes all the liberties it deems necessary to make its statement. A lot of the complexities in the characters are done away with in order to reduce them from fully-fleshed people to mere archetypes, the nuances in the arguments and ideas presented are erased to tell a more straightforward story, and a number of important facts that are necessary to contextualise the story correctly are conveniently sacrificed to make a point. And what was the point?

If your answer to that question is something along the lines of “scientific and rational thought is superior to blind faith”, then you’re wrong. Inherit the Wind was adapted from a 1955 play of the same name written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. In an interview, Lawrence had said, “We used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.” And why did the writers suddenly feel so compelled to make this point about the right to think? The answer, in a word, is McCarthyism.

McCarthy vs. Free Thought

In the late 1940s, Americans were gripped by the fear of that giant, looming, faceless threat advancing from around the globe: Communism. The Red Scare sent shivers down the spines of patriots and lovers of the American dream. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy entered the scene, took that latent fear and whipped it up to the highest levels of mass hysteria and moral panic by painting communists as traitors and Soviet spies living among Americans and infiltrating positions of power and influence. He began a fearsome campaign to identify and convict them. Thousands of Americans would be publicly named, questioned, interrogated, and threatened based on next to no evidence. It was akin to being labeled a terrorist today – they were put on a watchlist, their private lives were investigated, they lost their jobs and became social pariahs. It was one of the darkest moments in modern American history, much like the Emergency was for India.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy, who served as a U.S. Senator between 1947 and 1957, was noted for his claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy, who served as a U.S. Senator between 1947 and 1957, was noted for his claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere.

In 1953, Arthur Miller, who was investigated by McCarthy, used the 17th century Salem witch trials to make a lasting statement on McCarthyism in his play The Crucible. This inspired Lawrence and Lee to write Inherit the Wind. Speaking of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, Lawrence said, “We thought, ‘Here’s another time when there was a corset on your intellectual and artistic spirit.” It was, therefore, perhaps fitting that director and producer Stanley Kramer hired Nedrick Young, a blacklisted screenwriter, to assist in adapting the play for the big screen.

Fact and fiction

At the end of the film, it is revealed that Drummond is actually a practicing Christian. Hornbeck is taken aback and berates him strongly. Drummond says he pities Hornbeck and asks him, “You don’t need anything, do you? People. Love. An idea just to cling to. You poor slob. You’re all alone. When you go to the grave there won’t be anyone to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you. Nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.” Hornbeck replies: “You’re wrong, Henry. You’ll be there. You’re the type. Who else would defend my right to be lonely?” This Voltaire-esque reply is one of the most poignant parts of the film, and in a way, its most moving comment on the McCarthy era. The loneliness of having an unpopular opinion is frightening, but the right to have an independent thought is one that should be defended zealously. The film closes with Drummond picking up a copy of the Bible and Darwin’s The Descent of Man, thumping them together and walking out of the courtroom, showing in no uncertain terms that it is possible for two opposing ideas to live together.

The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned Scopes’ conviction on January 15, 1927, not on the grounds of the unconstitutionality of the Butler Act, but on a relatively minor technicality. Judge Raulston had imposed the $100 fine. However, under the constitution of Tennessee, any fine in excess of $50 has to be assessed by a jury. Reversing the lower court’s judgment, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated, “We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case. On the contrary, we think the peace and dignity of the State, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein. The Butler Act would remain in force for 40 more years. It was finally repealed on May 17, 1967.

Inherit the Wind is, therefore, a film about an actual trial, but it isn’t really about the trial. The actual trial was about a man who was accused of committing a crime, but it wasn’t really about the man or the crime. It was a platform for the voicing of opinions on larger questions. With the help of carefully planned and calculated moves made right from the beginning, the trial had ceased to be a process of dispensing justice and was turned into a dais for making political speeches. In much the same way, Inherit the Wind took the events and personalities that shaped the trial, shaved off the inconvenient bits that came in the way of the point it was trying to make, and ultimately presented an inaccurate version of what happened.

It is perhaps the only instance of the real trial being as much of a fiction as the celluloid trial.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)

Written by myLaw

Nanavati v. Maharashtra, the sensational true case behind Rustom (2016)

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Click here to watch the video

Rustom, released today, is Akshay Kumar’s latest movie. You probably know that it is based on a true story, but do you know the details of the sensational trial on which it is based? The real story is far more explosive and dramatic than any fictional film could possibly be.

K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra had all the elements of a thrilling potboiler but it involved real people and events. The cast of the actual case became more famous than movie stars – not just K.M. Nanavati, Sylvia Nanavati, and Prem Ahuja, who were involved in the actual incidents, but even those involved in the subsequent trials, including Y.V Chandrachud, Karl Khandalavala, and Ram Jethmalani. Moreover, the case became forever etched in the legal history of India as the last jury trial held in the country.

Join us as we delve into the events, personalities, and the unbelievable twists and turns of this true story that probably became the first instance of a trial by media in India. With the help of Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde and legal historian Kalyani Ramnath, we explore how this case has affected the way we deal with circumstantial evidence, what “grave and sudden provocation” means, the Governor’s power to grant pardons, and much more. We also ask the big question: Should the jury trial be brought back?

Written by myLaw

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – The Courtroom as Chessboard

SayakDasgupta_InCamera

I can’t claim to know a lot about chess. I mean I know the basic rules, but put me up against even a semi-competent 6-year-old and I would probably struggle to hold my own. Ask me what a “Sicilian Defence” is and I would guess Vito Corleone’s attorney. Mention “Scotch Game” and I would assume you were challenging me to a round of “Who can drink more Glenlivet?” But as an outsider, I am endlessly fascinated by chess, in much the same way as I am fascinated by quantum mechanics. My rudimentary understanding of the subject gives me enough of an idea of the big, complex things to be intrigued and beguiled by them, but I can barely wrap my head around their intricate workings.

Not just a game

Chess, of course, is a world in itself. Contained within the sprawl of those 64 squares are millions of moves and gambits, hundreds of memorable matches, and 1700 years of history spanning the entire globe. It is not surprising that for chess enthusiasts, the sun can rise and set on that chequered board. For them, chess becomes more than a mere game. Take, for instance, one of the greatest games of chess ever played: the World Chess Championship match of 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky – the subject of numerous articles, books, documentaries, and at least one major film. Played at the height of the Cold War, the match came to represent far more than a simple game of chess. No one put it better than one of the greatest players of all time, Garry Kasparov: “I think the reason you looked at these matches probably was not so much the chess factor but for the political element, which was inevitable, because in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. So that’s why Boris Spassky’s defeat in 1972, when Bobby Fischer took the crown from the hands of the Soviet Chess School… Since 1948, the chess title was firmly in the hands of Soviet players. This event was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crunch moment in the midst of the Cold War. Big intellectual victory for the United States and huge, painful, almost insulting defeat for the Soviet Union.”

“But, contrary to popular belief,” Kasparov added, “Chess was never part of the education system in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities had no interest in actually using chess – which I believe has the unique ability to enhance cognitive skills of kids – to use this in the schools, because all they wanted was just to find talent. So it was an investment to make sure that the top tier of Soviet chess would be always reinforced by new talent coming from the bottom of this pyramid.” Winning a game of chess became an end in itself. And it’s not difficult to see how that could happen. Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) is the story of two noblemen of Lucknow who are so consumed by the game that they fail to realise that Awadh has fallen to the hands of the British. And for all the fuss kicked up over the global political ramifications of the Fischer-Spassky match, wasn’t it much ado about almost nothing? The Cold War would continue for another 19 years. Bobby Fischer, who suffered from various psychological issues including paranoid personality disorder, would refuse to defend his title, which would go to a new Soviet Grandmaster, Anatoly Karpov, who would remain world champion for another decade. Nothing really changed. Despite the historic defeats and victories on the chessboard, the real world takes its own course. And this, it would seem, is what many also believe about the judicial system.

Not just a court drama

WitnessFortheProsecutionBilly Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), based on a play adapted from Agatha Christie’s short story of the same name, is a classic that is considered one of the greatest legal dramas ever made (placed 6th on the American Film Institute’s List of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas), which is a well-deserved accolade, given its clever plot, tight pacing, sharp dialogue and some truly memorable performances by the actors. But what really stayed with me is what the film seemed to say about the relationship between the trial process and justice.

Before I move on to the plot, I should warn you that the film hinges on a major twist that the filmmakers were very careful not to divulge. In fact, at the end of the film, a voice-over says: “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” It is said that Marlene Dietrich may have lost out on an Oscar purely because of the studio’s unwillingness to campaign for her lest they inadvertently give away the ending. Of course, this was much before the days of the Internet – a simple Google search for the film will lead you to hundreds of pages that will readily reveal the ending. This is also before the “twist ending” became a gimmick for every other movie (M. Night Shyamalan, I’m looking at you). The film is now almost 60 years old – whatever novelty the surprise ending once had has surely been around for long enough for us to be able to talk about it. But, if you haven’t seen the film yet and feel that spoilers will completely destroy the film for you, consider yourself warned. Go watch it, come back and read the rest.

**MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT**

Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is an accomplished and respected barrister who has just recently suffered a terrible heart attack. Despite the remonstrations of his nurse Ms. Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), he takes on a murder case that has been making the headlines in England. Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an unemployed young man, is accused of murdering Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), a rich older widow. He had befriended her hoping that she would some day lend him money to finance the mass production of a new kind of eggbeater that he has invented. While he had received no money from her when she was alive, Mrs. French has left him a large sum in her will. Naturally, this makes Vole the prime suspect. Believing him to be innocent, Sir Wilfrid agrees to represent him in the trial. Vole has an alibi – he was home with his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) at the time the murder is supposed to have been committed – and he is quite certain that she will testify to that fact. She has already confirmed the alibi in her statement to the police. However, when Sir Wilfrid interviews her in the hope of putting her on the stand as a witness for the defence, she turns out to be cold and completely unsympathetic to her husband’s plight.

WItnessForTheProsecutionMarleneDietrichChristineChristine is a German actress who had met Vole while he was serving in the Second World War. She reveals to Sir Wilfrid that she had only married him to get out of war-ravaged Germany, and that her marriage to Vole is actually void as she had already been married to another German man before she had even met Vole. Sir Wilfrid immediately decides not to put her on the stand and tells her that, by law, she cannot give incriminating testimony against her husband. However, during the trial he is shocked when Christine appears as a witness for prosecution. His objection is overruled when it is proved in court that since Christine was already a married woman when she married Vole, she cannot legally be considered his wife – spousal privilege does not apply and she can testify against him. (The law of spousal privilege no longer applies in quite that way in England. While a person cannot be compelled to testify against her/his spouse, s/he has a right to testify if s/he so wishes.) Christine testifies against Vole, denying that he was with her at the time of the murder and contradicting all the statements made in his defence. Vole’s case seems to be completely destroyed. However, just when all hope seems to be lost, Sir Wilfrid gets a call from a woman who, for a substantial sum of money, hands him a bunch of letters written by Christine to a lover, Max, in which she has written about her plot to destroy her “husband”. Armed with this fresh evidence, Sir Wilfrid discredits Christine’s testimony, proving that she has perjured herself. The jury acquits Vole.

Not just a twist

WitnessForTheProsecutionLeonardVoleTyronePowerHowever, as promised, there is a twist in the tale. It turns out that Christine is actually very much in love with Vole. Realising that “no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife”, Christine had decided to become a witness for the prosecution and orchestrate a chain of events that would lead to the jurors believing that she had lied under oath to get her husband in trouble. There was no Max – she had painstakingly written fake letters to an imaginary lover to fool the court. The woman who had given the letters to Sir Wilfrid had, in fact, been Christine in disguise (a truly stunning performance by Marlene Dietrich and a fantastic job by the make-up artist; I genuinely had no clue it was her the first time I watched the film). She reveals all of this to Sir Wilfrid after the trial is over along with the chilling fact that Vole had murdered Mrs. French. However, her dreams of reuniting with her “husband” are dashed when Vole, pleased with his acquittal and newfound wealth, tells her that he is leaving her for another woman. When she threatens to go to the authorities and confess to her perjury, he laughs it off, saying he can’t be convicted for the same crime again (we should take another quick moment to note that double jeopardy doesn’t quite work that way – cases can be reopened on the basis of fresh evidence). Enraged at her lover’s infidelity, Christine uses the knife that had been used to murder Mrs. French, to stab Vole to death. When Ms. Plimsoll declares, “She killed him,” Sir Wilfrid corrects her, “She executed him.” As the film comes to an end, he decides to represent Christine in her murder trial.

At the time Witness for the Prosecution was made, the penalty for murder was death (capital punishment for murder was abolished in England in 1965), and so, the film seems to suggest that justice has been done. It also seems to state that the legal system had nothing to do with it. True justice, it seems to say, is an independent concept that stands removed from the process of arriving at justice. The idea that justice by its very nature is a divine, elevated concept marred by flawed and ineffectual corporeal legal systems is not a new one, and is reiterated time and again in various works of fiction. A good example is Graham Greene’s short story The Case for the Defence. A man accused of murder is acquitted because he has an identical twin brother and the eyewitnesses cannot be certain which twin they saw at the scene. But as the brothers walk out of the courthouse, one of them is run over by a bus and dies instantaneously. Although we never really find out whether this was the twin who committed the murder, the narrator hints at an act of divine vengeance. But, once again, the larger point here seems to be that judicial mechanisms are easily manipulated and true justice can only be achieved outside the boundaries of law.

WitnessForTheProsecutionCharlesLaughlinWilfridRobartsFilms and literature often view the trial process like a game of chess, a self-absorbed exercise in futility with strict rules, prone to becoming an end in itself rather than a means to achieve justice. Like chess, the trial becomes nothing more than a competition of wit and cunning, in which clever practitioners can carefully plan their every move, employing every devastating tactic, strategy and gambit in their arsenal to foil their opponents and achieve victory. The players in the system tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The trial itself becomes more important than dispensing justice. You can call this outlook cynical, but is it entirely untrue? I’m not sure it is.

Not just a coincidence

But what does this say about the filmmakers’ and perhaps the audience’s perception of the judicial process? Is it that courts of justice really have no agency at all? That the trial is a sham, a sideshow, so much window dressing and going through the motions? Is it, like the Shakespearean idiot’s tale, full of sound and fury signifying nothing? In Witness for the Prosecution, “justice” is delivered through the stabbing hand of Christine, an extra-judicial act of vigilantism that, in the eyes of the film, is not criminal but necessary. In The Case for the Defence, “justice” is seemingly completely beyond the realm of human action and has to be meted out by an act of God. It betrays our weakness for an individual mover and our suspicion of faceless systems. It’s why in our popular fiction, heroes are godlike and government agencies are Kafka-esque. In her final act of vengeance, Christine is Batman, dispensing justice where the legal system failed, while Sir Wilfrid is Commissioner Gordon, a part of the system who watches helplessly as it fails the cause of justice and then decides to work from inside to help the hero.

While speaking about the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972, Garry Kasparov said, “Bobby Fischer was a great player, but he was like a lonely warrior, a guy from Brooklyn taking on the mighty Soviet Chess School. […] Mathematically speaking, the chance of finding Bobby Fischer was miniscule, so Fischer was some kind of miracle while the almost assembly line of champions in the Soviet Union was quite predictable because of the massive investment of the state into the chess infrastructure.” A lonely warrior triumphing over a larger system. Doesn’t that narrative sound familiar? It would seem that, like the trial, the game of chess, with its cold, technical precision and its self-contained, self-regulated mechanism of cause and effect, is not immune to the influence of the fairy tale flights of fancy of the outside world. And even on a square board, it is possible to come full circle.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)

Written by myLaw

Awara (1951) – The Courtroom as Ivory Tower

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(In Camera is Sayak Dasgupta’s series of essays that examine the depictions of trials in cinema. He will look at how filmmakers have chosen to use trials and the criminal justice processes and what those depictions tell us about their view of cinema and the societies they made those films for.)

In Raj Kapoor’s directorial debut, Aag (1948), he played Kewal, a boy whose father is a successful lawyer and wants him to become one too. Kewal however, is not interested in the law; he wants to start his own theatre company. When he fails his law exams, he goes to his father and tells him as much. His father responds with an ultimatum: if he wishes to keep living in his father’s house, Kewal must forget about theatre. Kewal chooses to leave home. Aag, to use a rather obvious pun, didn’t quite set the box office on fire. It got a lukewarm response from audiences and quickly faded away. Unlike Kewal, something about the law must have appealed to the actor who played him, because three years later, in his third directorial venture, Raj Kapoor once again told the story of a son whose father is a lawyer. But this time, the story was entirely different.

The context

Where Aag fizzled out, Awara exploded like a ton of dynamite not just in India, but all over the world. It became massively popular in South Asia, the Middle East, Turkey, the Soviet Union and most of eastern Europe. Search for “Awara Hoon” on YouTube and you will come across an array of endearing videos of Russian, Uzbek, Turkish, and Chinese people singing the song, in Hindi or translated in their native languages. It is said that Chairman Mao himself counted Awara among his favourite movies.

Awara was released four years after India gained its independence, and forty years before the liberalisation of its economy. The ideals of Nehruvian socialism were still very much an important part of the zeitgeist in India and would remain so for many decades to come. And at its core, the film is about class struggle. It isn’t surprising that the film appealed particularly to Indian, Soviet, and Chinese sensibilities at the time.

At that crucial moment in India’s history, Raj Kapoor’s films would go a long way in defining how commercially successful melodramas with a social message would be made for years to come. In this film, he chose to frame the narrative within a trial.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The story

Awara_courtroomIn fact, the film begins in a courtroom. A young man called Raj (Raj Kapoor) is accused of attempting to murder the widely respected Judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor). In true Shakespearean fashion, Raj’s defence attorney is his lover, Rita (Nargis), who questions Raghunath about his long-estranged wife, leading us into a flashback.

We discover that when Raghunath was a young and wealthy lawyer, his wife, Leela (Leela Chitnis), was kidnapped by the notorious thug, Jagga (K.N. Singh). Years ago, Raghunath had apparently managed to get him convicted for a rape that he had not committed, purely on the basis of the fact that his father and grandfather were criminals. You see, Raghunath holds the firm but bewildering belief that crime is a genetically transmitted disease. In other words, criminals are born to criminals, and no child of an honest person can ever get into a life of crime. (Clearly he hasn’t given much thought to what happens if an honest person and a criminal have a child. Perhaps an Indian version of Two-Face? Seriously, who wouldn’t want to watch that movie?)

Here, we get our first glimpse of the theme of the film. Whether Raghunath knows it or not, his beliefs are clearly not based on biology, but on class factors. In his mind, respectable people with respectable jobs and families cannot produce criminals. Criminals come from the other side of society.

Ironically, in Jagga’s case it was the criminal justice system that turned him into a criminal, and his sole aim in life seems to be to have his revenge. So when he finds out that Leela is pregnant, he knows exactly what to do. He uses Raghunath’s own flawed belief system to destroy his life. Jagga sends Leela back to Raghunath knowing that there would always be uncertainty about who the unborn child’s biological father is. And sure enough, Raghunath, like a modern Ram, casts his pregnant wife out of his home.

Leela gives birth to a boy and names him Raj. Despite living in abject poverty, she dreams of her son becoming a lawyer and a judge some day, just like his father. She scrapes together enough money to get him a decent education in a good school. Young Raj (Shashi Kapoor) is an anomaly in his class, which is full of children from far more affluent families. His only friend is Rita (Baby Zubeida), the daughter of a rich lawyer. Raj is a conscientious young boy who is eager to do honest work to help his mother make ends meet, but he finds it difficult to balance work and school. His life completely falls apart when he reaches class late one day and is expelled, and also informed that his best friend Rita has left town. At home, his mother is severely ill and he can’t afford to buy food or medicine. The straits have never been direr. Enter Jagga, who is still not done with his ridiculously elaborate revenge plot. On a quest to prove that even respectable people can give birth to criminals, he takes Raj under his wing and leads him into a life of crime. By the time he is an adult, Raj has become a career criminal and a frequent jail inmate.

The conflict

Raj Kapoor ensures that he keeps our protagonist as everyman as possible. In creating Raj, he borrowed heavily from Charlie Chaplin’s loveable tramp character to ensure our sympathies lie with him. We empathise with Raj’s ambitions of being upwardly mobile. In a revealing reflection of the times, Raj tells Jagga that he met a “political” the last time he was in jail and learnt to speak English from him. Despite working for the ruthless Jagga, Raj never seems to commit any particularly heinous or violent crimes (we mostly seem him commit petty theft). However, he is very acutely aware of his place in society, and when we do see the class struggle embodied in him erupting in acts of violence, it is particularly jarring. An especially disturbing example comes after Raj is reunited with Rita after many years and they fall in love. When Rita jokingly calls him “junglee” (uncouth, uncivilised, ill-mannered, ill-bred), he physically assaults her, twisting her arm, choking her, slapping her. Rita, despite being the one who has been assaulted, begs his forgiveness, even encouraging him to hit her some more. This bizarre scene only makes some semblance of sense if one thinks of Rita as a representation of the upper class, filled with its own version of white guilt, seeking forgiveness from the lower classes – an extraordinarily tone-deaf spectacle of self-flagellation from the affluent makers of the film.

After her father passed away, Rita was adopted by none other than Raghunath, who is now a respected judge, and she is now training to be a lawyer. Having fallen in love with her, Raj tries to leave his life of crime behind and start afresh. He gives up his swank apartment and becomes a factory-worker. However, his employer find out that he used to be a criminal and fires him. Before leaving, Raj asks him an important question: If he didn’t want to employ former criminals, did he want them to go back to a life of crime in order to survive? It is very rare for a mainstream Bollywood film to ask tough questions about the rehabilitation of criminals. This scene serves the dual purpose of exposing our society’s attitudes towards criminals, while also underlining the ability of the powerful upper class to disenfranchise and take away the means of survival of those who have less power.

Judge Raghunath is the very embodiment of this toxic mix of prejudice and power. When Rita tells him of her love for Raj, he insists on meeting him, and when they meet, he humiliates and belittles Raj. When Raj gets back home, he finds Jagga trying to kill his mother. In trying to save her and himself, Raj kills Jagga. In a stunning (and rather convenient) twist of fate his case is brought up before Judge Raghunath. Even before he has heard arguments on the matter, Raghunath has made up his mind to find Raj guilty – a clear demonstration of the unholy marriage of prejudice and power. But Rita takes it upon herself to get Raj acquitted. She asks Leela to testify to her son’s innocence, but when she reaches the court, Leela sees Raghunath from afar and recognises him. As she tries to walk to him she is run over by Raghunath’s car. When Raj hears of this, he is overcome with rage thinking that the judge has attempted to murder his mother. He escapes from prison and goes to Raghunath’s house to kill him. However, he is unable to go through with it and is arrested. And this brings us back to where the film began – the trial of Raj for the attempted murder of Raghunath.

The message

In Damini, Govind (Sunny Deol) repeatedly asserts that the judicial system has become a pawn in the hands of the rich and powerful. In Awara, this is demonstrated. Raghunath, referred to throughout the film as “Judge Sahab”, comes from a wealthy family and benefits from all the privileges that come with it. As a judge he gains power over people’s fates, but he is human, and like many humans, he harbours irrational prejudices that warp his sense of justice. He sits in judgment from atop an ivory tower completely ignorant of the harsh realities of living in poverty and squalor. The big question Awara asks is can you truly judge someone of being guilty of a crime if you can’t understand the circumstances that made her/him a criminal?

AwaraNargis2The film makes repeated references to the gulf between the law and the heart. Towards the end of the film, Rita asks Raghunath: “Kya ab bhi aapka dil use beta maanne ke liye taiyar nahin? (Is your heart still not ready to accept the fact that that this is your son?)”. The presiding judge says, “Rita Devi, kanoon dil ko nahin manta. (Rita Devi, the law does not recognise the heart.)”, to which Rita replies, “Janaab-e-wala, dil bhi kisi kanoon ko nahin manta. (Your honour, the heart also does not recognise any law.)” The film seems to say that the courts can be heartless and cold because the people who are given the job of dispensing justice often come from a privileged section of society that divorces them from the real world, rendering them incapable of having genuine empathy for those who are not like them.

However, does this mean that Awara is purely a polemical exercise in denouncing our criminal justice system? Not really, because, in the end, Raj’s trial has possibly the most just outcome. He is found guilty of attempting to murder Raghunath, but given the singular circumstances and the history of the people involved, the court sentences him to only three years in prison. Even Raj agrees that this is fair, that he must atone for what he has done. While many Hindi films would have acquitted Raj entirely, Awara takes an uncommonly fair and even-handed approach to the case. In the end, the court climbs down from its ivory tower and justice is done.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)

Written by myLaw

Damini (1993) – The Courtroom as Theatre

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(The criminal trial has proved to be a most useful literary, dramatic, and cinematic device. It finds place in some of humanity’s earliest texts and in some of its greatest – Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky for example, made abundant use of the criminal trial to explore good and evil and the complexities of justice and judicial decision-making. Cinema too has found it hard to resist the lure of pitting individuals and belief systems against each other in a courtroom. In Camera is Sayak Dasgupta’s series of essays that examine the depictions of trials in cinema. He will look at how filmmakers have chosen to use trials and the criminal justice processes and what those depictions tell us about their view of cinema and the societies they made those films for.)

It’s one of the most potent and lasting images in Indian cinema: Sunny Deol standing in a courtroom in a gown and band screaming in his eardrum-shattering, nails-on-a-chalkboard voice, the famous (or infamous, depending on how you see it) lines: “Tareekh par tareekh, tareekh par tareekh, tareekh par tareekh, tareekh par tareekh milti rahi hai! Lekin insaaf nahin mila, milord! Insaaf nahin mila! Mili hai to sirf yeh tareekh!” followed by a peculiar sound effect that resembles the cracking of a whip. Every time Sunny Deol shrieks “tareekh” the whip-sound is used to underline the point. These lines have become, for better or worse, a cultural milestone. Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini is perhaps most well known for just this one scene. The sentiment expressed in that piece of dialogue is reflected by several members of the legal community. In a myLaw interview, Soli Sorabjee himself called adjournments “the greatest curse” plaguing the judiciary. But it isn’t what was said in that scene in Damini that is interesting. It is how it was said.

Trial and error

The trial in Hindi cinema is a strange creature. Often it has almost no connection with reality. While the courtroom is a place governed by exceedingly strict rules of procedure, evidence, and conduct, all rules are suspended in the Bollywood version. Anyone can walk into the courtroom and offer testimony in the form of dramatic monologue, new facts and witnesses can be presented as a surprise element, a lawyer can pick up a bottle of medicine that has been presented as material evidence and drink it up to prove that it is not poison, and, as in the case of Damini, a defense attorney can even conduct his own version of a police lineup in the courtroom by presenting a bunch of men, faces covered in Holi colours, and shoving them onto the witness. There were several moments in the movie that made me clutch my head and exclaim, “What the hell is going on here?” But I don’t want to write about the legal and procedural inaccuracies in Hindi films. Films from all over the world have always played fast and loose with how legal systems work. Instead, I want to observe how the trial process has been represented in popular Hindi cinema and understand what that says about our collective perception of our system of dispensing justice. I decided to start with Damini simply because the lines from the film that I have mentioned above have left such an indelible mark on the Indian filmgoer’s psyche that even 23 years after the release of the film, they are still the first lines that come to mind when you mention law and film in the same sentence. Last year, we had conducted a light-hearted contest in which we had asked our followers on Facebook and Twitter to send in Dubsmash videos of themselves mouthing lines from any law-related movie. Over 80 per cent of the entries were of people vigorously enacting Sunny Deol’s “tareekh par tareekh” primal scream. Most of them were law students who hadn’t even been born when Damini was released.

But despite the incredible staying power of its dialogues, I realised that Damini is a very typically melodramatic ‘90s Bollywood movie that hasn’t aged very well. While it certainly means well with its strong denunciation of the treatment of women in India, it is often unbearably clunky and heavy handed.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

The story so far

To briefly recount the story, Damini (Meenakshi Seshadri) is a small town girl who belongs to a lower middle class family. She is spotted by Shekhar (Rishi Kapoor), the son of a major industrialist from Bombay, and it’s love at first sight. Shekhar marries her and takes her to Bombay, but his family treats her more like a servant than a bahu. She befriends and becomes very close to the maid, Urmi (Prajakta Kulkarni). Several days go by and one day when the family is celebrating Holi at home, Damini witnesses Shekhar’s brother Rakesh (Ashwin Kaushal) and his friends raping Urmi. She tries to stop them but fails as they push her out of the room and lock the door. She rushes to get Shekhar and when the both of them manage to break the door, the rapists pick up a now unconscious Urmi, drive her away in a car and dump her at the side of a road. When the police come to question the family, they claim that the rape had not occurred in their home and that they had no knowledge of it. Shekhar convinces Damini to lie as well. However, Damini’s conscience eventually compels her to tell the truth to the police. Shekhar’s father, Mr. Gupta (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), hires “Barrister” Indrajit Chaddha (Amrish Puri), a suspender-snapping, hair-flicking, unscrupulous, slimy shyster as his son’s defence attorney. The trial begins.

BarristerChadha_AmrishPuriIt is interesting to pause here and note that the first lawyer we are introduced to is the utter embodiment of evil, representing absolutely every negative cliché in existence about a lawyer. Far be it from the film giving us a more complex lawyer character who must painfully grapple with the moral dilemma of representing a rapist, we are given evil incarnate, a man who actually believes that rape is no big deal and will go to any lengths to get his client off. A man we can safely hate. When the trial begins, neither the victim nor the accused are seen in court. The victim is in the hospital because of the severe injuries she has sustained from the rape. But the accused? There’s no explanation for their absence. What we see instead is Damini on trial. I found this erasure quite bizarre. Damini could have been the story of a rape survivor’s fight for justice. Instead, the story relegates the rape victim to the sidelines in her own case. In fact the victim doesn’t even survive the trial.

As the only witness who is willing to come forward Damini is put up on the stand and Chaddha proceeds to prove that she is insane. He does this by getting Shekhar’s family and Damini’s own father (Anjan Srivastav) to cook up false stories. He does not produce a single psychiatrist, doctor, or medical document to prove her insanity. Which seems to be fine with the court. Thanks to Chaddha’s cunning plan, Damini is committed to a mental facility, her testimony is discredited and the accused are released. At a later stage he encourages his client to get Damini murdered. Once again, it’s important to note here that Chaddha is not just following his client’s orders here. He is actively hatching the evil plots and advising his client to do evil things out of his own innate evilness. What we need to keep in mind here is that the film shows him as “the lawyer”. He is referred to as “Barrister” and at one point Sunny Deol calls him “kanoon ke dalal”.

The question of agency

The fact that the protagonist of Damini is a woman witness who battles against all odds to get justice for the wronged is in itself quite revolutionary, but as I said earlier, the film doesn’t age too well. The language of the film is steeped in the traditions of the popular movies of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Although Damini seems to be a talented dancer, she seems to have no ambitions of making a career out of it. In fact, she seems to have no career ambitions at all despite being quite intelligent, independent, and educated. When she marries Shekhar, she immediately becomes a housewife and everyone settles down in their traditional gender roles, Damini_MeenakshiSheshadrino questions asked. In one scene, Damini says to Urmi, “Pati ko apne hee haath se pakaake khilaane mein bahut sukh milta hai. (It is a great pleasure for a wife to cook for her husband.)” All of this seems jarringly dated in the age of films like Kahaani and Queen. Her daring act of pure agency is when she defies the family and goes to the police to reveal the truth about the rape. But even here it is revealed that the police and other interested parties are actually using her as a pawn in a larger game of deceit and intrigue. The very act that gave her some agency is completely undermined. Throughout the movie Damini is used, manipulated, harassed, humiliated, and imprisoned. Her other act of agency comes when she escapes from the mental asylum. She is chased through the streets by Rakesh and his friends until she runs into Govind (Sunny Deol), who saves her and becomes her protector. Damini running to Govind for protection, standing behind him, and peering nervously over his shoulder while he faces her assailants in all his manly glory is another recurring image in the film. It seems very obvious that Damini has been turned into a victim. From the moment Govind enters the film, he becomes the archetypical male protective force and the mover of the plot.

AdvocateGovind_Damini_SunnyDeolWho do the lawyers represent?

Govind is also a lawyer, but the film goes to quite some length to show that he isn’t really a “lawyer”. When Damini runs into him, he has quit the law, disgruntled and disillusioned by its failure to help him get justice for his dead wife. He constantly speaks of himself as an outsider to the profession and refers to the system as a tool in the hands of the rich and powerful. One can’t help but come to the conclusion that he is supposed to represent the voice of the frustrated masses dressed in a gown and band only so that it can find a place inside the courtroom.

This polarised positioning of the two lawyers seems to perpetuate a dangerous myth about the legal profession: that lawyers always agree or sympathise with whomever they represent, otherwise they would not take the case. This patently false assumption often leads to prosecutors being held as heroes and defence attorneys being considered villains by the layman.

As the literal (screaming) voice of conscience in the film, Govind is supposed to be representing us all in that courtroom. Through his wit, intelligence and guile, he is able to take on Chaddha’s most cunning moves and thwart them in court. Isn’t that the dream? Throw out the rules and regulations and we could all be Govind. If it weren’t for all those bothersome procedures we could all just put on a gown and band and give stirring speeches in the courtroom and defeat our enemies by the sheer force of our intellect. However, bring in all the rules and procedures, and lawyers like Chaddha win. American movies based on the law tend to emphasise a lot more on rules than Indian ones. Whether it is a light-hearted jaunt like My Cousin Vinny or a serious drama like A Few Good Men, procedure plays a critical role in the Hollywood depiction of a trial. The fact that cases can be won or lost on procedural technicalities has been drilled into the American audience’s mind, so much so that entire TV shows like How To Get Away With Murder, Law & Order, and The Practice can be largely based on how procedural intricacies can frustrate or help lawyers. For the American audience, the courtroom is a battlefield or a competitive arena where strict rules make for riveting games and clever strategies.

For the Indian audience, on the other hand, the courtroom is a theatre where the drama unfolds. In many Indian films based on legal trials one gets to see the spectacle of a person, not necessarily a lawyer, giving a long uninterrupted speech while animatedly walking around the entire room, followed by thunderous applause from the people sitting and watching the performance. Indeed, Govind’s “Tareekh par tareekh” speech in Damini gets a standing ovation in the courtroom. We like to see ourselves in the dramatis personae, hear our voices emanating from their mouths. The film trial, for us, is meta-theatre – we want to be surprised, delighted, enraged, shocked, moved; we want a satisfying denouement. We want to believe that within this courtroom anything can happen, and above all justice, or at least our conception of it, will be served. We expect from the trial everything that we expect from the film itself.

Damini starts off with a quote from none other than India’s most famous lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi:

“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”

This is a line that is repeated right at the very end of the film by the judge who is presiding over the trial as he congratulates Damini and commends her for her courage, integrity, and strength of will. But it also sets the tone of the film and perhaps frames our films’ attitude towards our judicial system. Isn’t it quite an awkward paradox? In the court of public opinion our actual courts of justice don’t stand a chance.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw.net looking for things to do.)

Written by myLaw

6 things law students can learn from the previous Star Wars movies

SayakDasguptaI deeply resent the fact that we in India have had to wait an extra week for Star Wars: The Force Awakens simply because Disney was too scared to release it on the same day as Dilwale and Bajirao Mastani. Like many others, I took this time to watch the entire series all over again. Although I prefer the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI) to the prequel trilogy (Episodes I, II, and III) made later, I decided to watch the series in the intended chronological order of the saga, beginning with Episode I and ending with Episode VI. As I powered through the largely clunky, exposition-filled dialogue, awkward performances, and weak writing of the first three episodes, I began to notice a lot of parallels between Star Wars and the life of a law student. People often tend to forget that Star Wars is essentially a story about students trying to gain knowledge and skills in a very specific area and learning how to apply them in their chosen paths. Sound familiar?

So here are 6 lessons law students could take away from the six Star Wars movies we have had before Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE STAR WARS MOVIES.

1. Your background does not matter. A true Jedi can come from anywhere. (Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

StarWarsThePhantomMenaceWhen the team at myLaw.net visits some of the lesser-known law schools, particularly those situated outside the metros, we meet many students who are worried about their future because they are not studying at a top-tier law school. Many others feel they are at an extreme disadvantage because no one in their family is a lawyer, or because they come from a small town or village and are not very comfortable with English, and so on. We tell all of them the same thing: ultimately, it doesn’t matter which law school you go to, or who your relatives are, or where you come from. These are challenges that can be overcome. What really matters is how hard you work towards getting to where you want to be.

In Episode I, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn finds young Anakin Skywalker on a little-known dead end of a desert planet called Tatooine. Anakin and his mother Shmi are slaves with no hope for a better future. But Anakin isn’t just naturally talented; he has worked hard to hone his skills as a gifted pilot and expert builder of complex machines. Qui-Gon wagers with Watto (who owns Anakin and Shmi) that if Anakin wins an upcoming pod race, he will be freed. Some might say Anakin owes his freedom to Qui-Gon, but let’s not forget that it was Anakin who built the pod, and it was Anakin who raced it. Qui-Gon gave him an opportunity, which he seized immediately. Unfortunately, Qui-Gon didn’t survive to train Anakin, but he asked his own Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to take him as his apprentice.  No matter what your circumstances are, if you work hard and make the best of the available resources and opportunities that come your way, you will do well. Here’s a quick example: Harish Salve was a young chartered accountant working with his father in Nagpur. He was asked to write a note on a certain law and what he wrote impressed his father so much that he showed it to Nani Palkhivala. Palkhivala asked Salve, “When are you joining the profession?” Salve studied law in Nagpur and when he graduated, Palkhivala asked Soli Sorabjee to take him on as a junior, and the rest is history. Think of Salve as Anakin, Palkhivala as Qui-Gon, and Sorabjee as Obi-Wan.

2. You have a lot to learn, young Padawan. (Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

StarWarsAttackOfTheClonesEpisode II focuses on an adolescent Anakin who is beginning to discover the extent of his powers under the tutelage of Obi-Wan. While Anakin is certainly gifted, he is also brash, arrogant, and hot-headed. This will ultimately lead to his downfall. Your internships are a lot like Jedi apprenticeships. Think of the lawyers you’re working under as Jedi masters. They are more knowledgeable and experienced than you, and if you show humility, enthusiasm, and curiosity, they will be willing to teach you many things that are far more valuable than what you learn in law school. Even if they don’t take a hands-on approach to teaching, you can learn a lot just by assisting and observing.

There’s an even larger point here. A law student should be like a sponge, absorbing everything s/he can. This doesn’t mean you should just pay attention to the professor in class or the lawyer you’re doing your internship with. There is a whole world out there that is governed by laws. You need to keep abreast of current affairs and latest developments and how these things affect the law or vice versa. Read, debate, discuss, explore. Speak to the top lawyers in this country or anywhere in the world and you will discover that they have a wide range of interests and can hold an intelligent conversation on just about any topic. To be a good lawyer, you need to have a well-rounded personality, and that can only come with a strong penchant to keep learning.

3. Things are not always as they seem. Analyse everything; take nothing for granted. (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)

StarWarsRevengeOfTheSithEpisode III is a culmination of all the mistakes everyone has made in the previous episodes. The ostensibly trustworthy senator Palpatine turns out to be the evil Sith lord, Darth Sidious. As Palpatine, Darth Sidious had gained everyone’s trust and got himself elected Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic. He now reorganises the Republic into the Galactic Empire and declares himself the Emperor amidst the wildly enthusiastic approval of the entire senate, prompting Queen Amidala to utter one of the most poignant lines in the whole series: “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.” The Jedi, despite the depth of their knowledge, ability to sense disturbances and imbalances in the force and power to look into the future, have been unable to detect this evil that has lurked right under their noses this whole time and are shocked when they hear the truth. Meanwhile, Darth Sidious has turned Anakin to the Dark Side and christened him Darth Vader. The Jedi had so far operated under the assumption that Anakin was “the chosen one” who would destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force as foretold by the prophesy. Now Master Yoda admits, “A prophesy that misread could have been.” Even the mighty Jedi can make mistakes. A law student needs to question and analyse everything. A clause in a contract, a provision in a bare act, a line in a pleading may seem fine on the surface, but you need to go deeper, deconstruct, and analyse. In a statute or legal document, every single word has a specific meaning and significance. You have to make sure that you understand it. Don’t just go by what some authority or your professor or the lawyer you are working under has stated on an issue. These people are human and humans make errors. Question everything, right down to the basis of a law – why does it exist? For what specific purpose was it drafted? Does it apply in your case? In a document, why has a particular word or term been used? Does it go against the interests of your client? Is a clause completely watertight or is there a loophole? When lawyers take things for granted or at face value, disasters happen.

4. Try new things. Get out of your comfort zone. (Episode IV: A New Hope)

StarWarsLike his father, Luke Skywalker is a boy who lives on Tatooine. He may not be as preternaturally gifted as his father was, but he does have the same ambition – to leave the planet and make something of himself. However, he lets things hold him back. Even when he discovers a mysterious message for old Ben Kenobi, even when Ben tells him of his Jedi father and asks him to come with him across the galaxy on a life-altering adventure, Luke keeps hesitating and telling Ben that he has things to do at home and he can’t just take off. It is only when his uncle Owen and aunt Beru are slaughtered by Imperial stormtroopers that Luke realises he must go. Most of Luke’s trajectory through this movie and the next one is his attempt to get over his doubts and hesitations and become a true Jedi. As a law student or intern, your aim should be to get the most out of your law school or internship. This means exploring every avenue that presents itself. The worst thing that you could say to yourself at the end of it is “I wish I had tried that.” Go ahead and participate in that moot, write that article, take part in that debate, start that students’ group in law school, organise that festival, present a paper in that seminar, do that internship with that small NGO that doesn’t pay, take on some research on an area you have never worked on before, have a go at drafting a document you have never tried drafting before, do a course in a niche subject that you find interesting. If you don’t try something, you will never know whether you can do it. This is your time to discover what you want to do for the rest of your life. Make it count.

5. Don’t rush into anything without preparing yourself for it. (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

StarWarsTheEmpireStrikesBackIn Episode V, Luke travels to Dagobah, a remote world of swamps and forests, to receive advance training in the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda. However, in the midst of his training, Luke has a vision in which he sees Han and Leia are going to be in trouble. He decides to leave immediately to help them. Both Yoda and the spirit of Obi-Wan warn him repeatedly that he must not go on this mission without finishing his training. Only a fully trained Jedi with complete control over the Force can face Darth Vader and his forces. Leaving while his training is still incomplete, Luke will risk everything they have all fought for all these years. But Luke goes anyway, and sure enough, he is thoroughly underprepared. Darth Vader forced Lando Calrissian to help him capture Han and Leia on the planet Bespin and used them as bait to lure Luke. To cut a long story short, Luke ends up helping no one. When he reaches Bespin, Han has already been frozen in carbon and dispatched to Jabba the Hutt, and Darth Vader is waiting to confront Luke. Luke is not even close to being a match for Darth Vader who cuts his hand off in a lightsaber battle. He is also not equipped to deal with what Darth Vader reveals to him: that he is Luke’s father. If he had stayed in Dagobah and completed his training, he would have had the strength and fortitude to handle it. In fact, a true Jedi would have not only repelled Darth Vader’s attack, but also sensed the nature of the revelation (In Episode VI, Luke senses Leia is his sister before Obi-Wan actually reveals it to him). Physically wounded and emotionally devastated, Luke has to be rescued by Leia who had managed to escape with Lando’s help. While in the previous point I said you should always be ready to try new things, it is also absolutely essential that you prepare for them. Give your absolute 100% to anything you take up, otherwise the results could be disastrous. Whether you’re mooting, writing an article, taking an exam, presenting a paper in a seminar, writing a note on a legal question during an internship or sitting for an interview, always ensure you have covered all the bases, done you research thoroughly and are completely and thoroughly prepared to the best of your abilities. Taking short cuts and hoping you can wing it can prove fatal in the legal profession.

6. Learn to be a team player. (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)

StarWarsReturnOfTheJediThe major difference between Anakin and Luke is that while Anakin was an island and thought he could do everything on his own, Luke realised he would need help and asked for it. As a part of the rebel group, he became an integral member of a team that through the course of the last three episodes got increasingly better at achieving its goals. The two major missions in the movie were successfully completed thanks only to smart delegation of work and perfect teamwork. The first one, rescuing a carbon-frozen Han from Jabba the Hutt’s lair, was achieved mostly through cunning, with R2-D2, C-3PO, Leia, Chewbacca, Lando and Luke infiltrating Jabba’s palace under various pretexts and guises and overcoming a setback to kill Jabba and make a clean getaway. The second, destroying the new Death Star, was a much larger and more complicated plan involving two separate sub-groups of the team working together and coordinating over a vast distance in order to succeed. Thanks to their teamwork, the relatively smaller rebel alliance with its limited resources managed to defeat the enormous, powerful Galactic Empire. As a law student, intern and a future lawyer, you should start getting used to working in teams to achieve targets effectively. You need to be able to communicate and coordinate with your teammates perfectly and assume a role of leadership when necessary. You have to learn to do your job and help others do theirs. That is the only way to work.

So, these are the 6 major lessons for a law student I could glean from the Star Wars movies. Clearly, there is a lot more you can learn from them. Go enjoy the movies, watch the new installment and let me know if I have missed something by writing in the comments.

And as always, may the force be with you.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw.net looking for things to do.)

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Violence and the republic in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

What role does violence have in establishing a republic? Is the rule of law a peaceful one? John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) poses these and other questions that are fundamental to the exercise of power by the people.

Republican values arrive in the American frontier town of Shinbone through the protagonist Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (played by James Stewart), a “youngster fresh out of law school, bag full of law books”. On his Westward journey, the idealistic Stoddard gets a taste of “Western law” when he stands up to the fearsome robber Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) and is whipped to the ground. Law, he soon learns, could not subdue Valance’s terror. The town’s cowardly marshall is no match for Valance and the townsfolk seemed to prefer the protection of the gun.

The only man with the gunfighting skills to stand up to Valance is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who, like Valance, has a sneering contempt for the law and, like Valance, represents the frontier’s faith in the gun. “Out here”, Doniphon tells Stoddard, “a man settles his own problems”. The machismo of Valance and Doniphon is contrasted with the well-mannered Stoddard, who is washing dishes in a restaurant and is frequently apron-clad.

The key difference between Valance and Doniphon of course, lay in what they use their guns for. Valance uses violence to meet his selfish needs and those of the cattle ranchers who hire him. Doniphon on the other hand, represents righteous violence and uses his gun to protect the townsfolk.

Stoddard soon earns the town’s respect. Refusing to accept Valance’s authority, he establishes a law practice and a school to teach the illiterate townsfolk and their children to read and write.

Hallie (Vera Miles), who also works in the restaurant, is used to show the law’s attraction for the townsfolk – the promise of stability and respect for individuals in a violent world. While Doniphon woos her with presents and compliments, he does not want her to go to school. It is Stoddard who ultimately earns her affection.

However, even as the town warms up to the rule of law, Stoddard becomes a participant in the frontier’s violence. He acknowledges the threat posed by Valance and accepts a revolver from the editor and publisher of the local newspaper. Not amused by a trick played on him, he even punches Doniphon in the face.

This grudging acceptance of violence as a way of the frontier happens just as the town begins to articulate its yearning for republican values. The town wants to elect a representative to press the demand for statehood at the territorial convention but Valance, who has been hired by the predatory forces of capital – the cattle ranchers who would rather the territory remain ruled by the hired gun, threatens the fair conduct of the election. Only after Doniphon blunts the threat can the election proceed. The rule of law could only emerge in Shinbone at the point of Doniphon’s gun.

TheManWhoShotLibertyVallance

Ransom Stoddard prepares to confront Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, Paramount Pictures).

After Stoddard is elected to represent the town at the statehood convention, Valance challenges him to a gunfight and in the confrontation between them, to everyone’s surprise, it is Valance who falls dead. Doniphon’s climactic revelation [SPOLER ALERT] confirms the suspicion that it was he who felled Valance. The revelation assuages Stoddard’s conscience and he embarks on a life in politics. But the final scene reveals the endurance of the myth that it was Stoddard who was “the man who shot Liberty Valance”. The myth continued to sustain a long and glittering career in public life.

The endurance of one legend reveals the falsehood about a “fact” – the peaceful rule of law. Its moral authority may derive from popular acceptance but, like Stoddard’s political career, the rule of law had deep roots in violence.

(Aju John is part of the faculty at myLaw.net.)

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Justice League

If Tamil cinema were to be believed, every village in the state has a Banyan tree. Not only is this centrally located tree the main congregation point for residents, it also doubles as the seat of local government. The village panchayat depicted in Tamil cinema is a strange organism. It has been used and abused so many times that some present-day films use it almost as a parody. Seemingly disconnected from reality, it usually consists of the village headman and a few august elders dispensing judgment on a wide variety of disputes. Legal eagles and policymakers still hotly debate some of the issues for which a cabal of elderly gentlemen seated under the shady canopy of that banyan tree often seem to have solutions.

Image above is from miamism's photostream on Flickr.

Image above is from miamism’s photostream on Flickr.

The issue with these solutions is that they are often far too simplistic. They immediately hand the moral high ground to the protagonist and rarely challenge our preconceived notions of right and wrong. Not only are these solutions simplistic they are sometimes, especially in the case of women’s issues, very regressive. These panchayat episodes almost never explore why people continue to take recourse in this sort of adhoc justice system. They also rarely discuss moral grey areas or question the authority of the panchayat itself. Therefore the rare panchayat scene that does all this and more needs to be preserved and examined. And one such scene can be found in the 1992 instant classic, Thevar Magan. [Ed. It was later remade into the Hindi film Virasat in the year 1997.]

Thevar Magan is the story of London educated-Sakthi (Kamal Hassan) returning to his village, Chinnathoovaloor, in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu. His father, Periya Thevar (Sivaji Ganesan), the largest landowner and de facto headman of the village, is embroiled in a seemingly never-ending family feud with his younger brother Chinna Thevar and his son Mayan. Both the brothers have a fanatical following in the village and each faction constantly seems to be on the lookout for a way to upstage the other. From property disputes to conducting temple festivals, every aspect of life in the village usually descends into a game of one-upmanship and violence. Sakthi is introduced into this environment as the educated outsider. With his older son reduced to a wasteful alcoholic, Periya Thevar, and in turn, his faction, looks to Sakthi for support and deliverance from the cycle of violence that Mayan seems bent on continuing. The dilemma that Sakthi faces is whether to ‘regress’ to the feudal instincts of his brethren or harness the sophistication that his education has provided to make a difference. It is at the height of this conflict, both internal and external, that Mayan creates a situation that demands the convening of the village panchayat. (The scene can be seen here.)

Mayan installs a barbed wire fence that would prevent Periya Thevars side of the village from obtaining access to the hospital, market and other amenities. Learning of this, Periya Thevar  descends upon the scene with his inebriated older son, Sakthi, and accountant only to find Mayan’s lawyer overseeing the installation. The scene touches upon a number of issues – the dynamics of caste and the superiority assigned to those who can speak fluent English – that, even to this day, are sources of debate in our country. Most importantly, it also examines the place of the courts in a feudal system. Periya Thevar is of the opinion that the fenced land was only temporarily gifted to the current owner and still belongs to him. Since Kamal Hassan and Sivaji Ganesan (two of the largest stars in Tamil cinema) play Sakthi and Periya Thevar respectively, the audience is conditioned to assume that they are in the right. However, if we view this argument dispassionately, it is apparent that this is a moral and legal grey area. To gift away property and then return to claim it when inconvenienced is unacceptable. This is why, despite Sakthi insisting on going to the courts, Periya Thevar would prefer to solve the issue in the panchayat. He believes that the only the archaic moral code of the village panchayat will arrive at a solution that is favourable to him. Of course, as expected, the panchayat too descends into a game of one-upmanship between cousins and by the end of it even the educated Sakthi has abandoned his ‘modern’ outlook for his feral tendencies.

The panchayat scene in Thevar Magan questions the authority of the system it portrays by discussing its lack of objectivity. A village is, by definition, a very small community of people. Most people, with the exception of outsiders, are related to each other by less than three degrees of separation. Therefore it is extremely difficult for any authority elected from within the village to be objective. As Periya Thevar himself analogises, “a sick doctor must go to another doctor”, yet he refuses to go to the courts because he is unsure of the outcome. As a result, a dispute that may have been amicably settled does not even reach the legal system. And this is what separates the panchayat sequences in Thevar Magan from the myriad other scenes we’ve seen in Tamil cinema.

 

(Deepauk Murugesan is an engineer and film-crazy freelance writer from Chennai. He has been published in the New Indian Express and the Chennai edition of the Times of India. He can be found discussing scenes from obscure South Indian films on the Internet.)

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The penalty, the profession, and the pain

In her book Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean, one of the foremost American proponents for the abolition of the death penalty, wrote: ‘Government … can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.’ But in the 1960s, under the feared dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, capital punishment was very much in vogue in Spain, as we learn from the opening sequence of the acclaimed Spanish director and screenwriter Luis García Berlanga’s criminally underrated and unfairly under-viewed tragicomedy masterpiece El Verdugo(1963) a.k.a. The Executioner a.k.a. Not on Your Life.

As the film begins, a prison guard has his breakfast interrupted with the arrival of a mortician and his assistant, the latter carrying a coffin on his shoulders. Through a second door emerge a handful of government officials, including the counsel of defence, and an aged, affable man, carrying with him a case. He is, the mortician tells his assistant, the eponymous executioner. The duo and the coffin now enter through the same door, only to re-emerge a moment later. Only this time, they are holding the casket up at both ends, indicating there is a body inside. Thus, subtly, the spectre of death enters the frame, and will hover around the main characters throughout the film. However, like the morbid act of the execution itself, it will never really come out in the open.

The elderly, genteel executioner is Amadeo (played brilliantly by the renowned Spanish actor José Isbert). As the mortician’s assistant, José Luis (portrayed by the Italian actor Nino Manfredi) tells his boss, ‘…he looks like a normal person’, the first of the many wrong impressions that we harbour about an executioner gets snuffed out. A veteran of forty years in the gruesome profession of garrotting, Amadeo has a long time ago come to terms with the reality that ‘executioners are misunderstood people’. That is why he does not get affronted when the prison guard looks distastefully at his case containing the tools of his trade that he had mistakenly placed on the same desk where the guard was having his breakfast. Nor is he shaken by the obvious irritation his innocuous query about when the first streetcar arrives is met with.

A chance visit to Amadeo’s residence reveals to José Luis that he is not really popular among his neighbours, either, who consider themselves ‘respectable people’. But when the young undertaker meets Amadeo’s spinster daughter Carmen (Emma Penella), something starts brewing between the two hearts, and it is not just the coffee that Carmen dutifully offers him.

As the two start coming closer, they find that they share something in common. Carmen confides to José Luis that all her fiancés have run away the moment they had learnt that she was an executioner’s daughter. José Luis tells her in return that every girl has left him when they had realised that he earns his bread by working as an undertaker. While death parts other couples, in this particular case, it brought two hearts together.

Image above is from Wiros' photostream on Flickr.

Image above is from Wiros’ photostream on Flickr.

 

Coaxed by his boss, who is also Amadeo’s friend, and browbeaten by being unfortunately caught in bed with Carmen when Amadeo had barged into the house unannounced, the unassuming undertaker has no other option but to abandon his dream of going to Germany and becoming a mechanic, and gets married to Carmen, instead. But surely, there is no place in his own house for his new bride, which is already bursting at its seams as a result of the presence of José Luis’s younger brother Antonio (curiously played by an actor named José Luis López Vázquez)—a tailor by profession—his shrewish wife, and their two children. Moreover, on the day of the wedding, disgusted that his brother had taken an executioner’s daughter as a bride, Antonio had proclaimed that he would be parting ways with his elder brother.

But good news arrives in the form of a missive that declares that in recognition of his four-decade-long service, Amadeo has been granted a three-bedroom flat. However, as fate would have it, the soon-to-be-retired executioner is told that he will lose the flat the moment he is out of work. Hence, the future of the family, which is on the verge of welcoming a new addition, seems to hang on whether an individual, who is an expert at interring, can now become equally proficient at garrotting.

The very idea of earning his livelihood by taking someone’s life is unimaginable to José Luis. But his feeble protests stand no chance while facing the incessant haranguing of his father-in-law, who keeps insisting that he take the job and make the flat theirs simply because ‘…they sentence people, but, in the last moment, they’re going to pardon them!’ Begrudgingly, the undertaker, who has always believed that ‘People should die in their own beds’ accedes to Amadeo’s request, while dreading the day when he will be called to ‘work’. To his utter dismay, his fear soon becomes reality, when he is summoned to Mallorca to execute a condemned convict.

A close scrutiny of all timeless comedies will reveal a common thread. If one scratches their funny, frothy façade, one will invariably find pain and pathos running deep. Berlanga’s El Verdugo is no exception.

The film is full of both wry, satiric humour as well as laugh-out-loud moments. Take for example, the scene when José Luis visits Amadeo’s house for the first time. On the wall, he spies a framed photograph. Noticing his gaze, a nonchalant Amadeo tells the young undertaker that it is one of his ‘clients’, and then goes on to show him the wristwatch that the man had gifted the executioner. A horrified José Luis now turns his attention to another wall, this time adorned with more than one portrait. Pre-empting the unasked query, the aged man replies, in an equally casual manner: ‘No, those are just my relatives!’ Or the scene when Carmen wants to buy a new shirt for José Luis, and Amadeo takes one look at his son-in-law’s neck to announce: ‘It’s a size forty-one!

While peppering his film with such smile-inducing moments (the wedding scene is uproariously funny), maestro Berlanga and his frequent collaborator, co-writer Rafael Azcona, have not, for a moment, allowed the subliminal anti-capital-punishment message of their film to be diluted. By condemning the duplicity of governments that proclaim they want to protect the lives of citizens, and at the same time sentence them to their deaths, Berlanga and Azcona state their message aloud through Amadeo, when he suddenly grasps the hand of his would-be son-in-law and brings it near a lamp socket to say: ‘That is only 250 volts! They make me laugh when they say public garroting is inhuman. Is the guillotine better then? Do you think it’s fair to bury a man in pieces?…The Americans, they use the electric chair, which leaves them carbonised, scorched’.

The director-screenwriter duo also delivers the same message subtly, in the unforgettable penultimate sequence of the film, by raising the all-important question: Who really dies and who gets killed at the garrotte, gallows, or guillotine?

 

(Cine File works in a leading publishing company.)

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