Damini (1993) – The Courtroom as Theatre



(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.


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 looking for things to do.)


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.


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

StarWarsThePhantomMenaceWhen the team at 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 looking for things to do.)


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.


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