Pink and Court: The humdrum Courtroom in focus
Updated: Jul 24
For a typical Indian household, even if you didn’t grow up watching Bollywood films - if somebody asked you your first association to law and order or courtrooms, a few images stand even across the board.
Growing up, lady justice with her blindfolded eyes; an expansive, bare-basics courtroom with the images of martyrs and independence heroes hung in the backgrounds; a gavel thudding three times with unnecessarily loud echoes followed by a growling KHAMOSH!; drab advocate uniforms and dialogues like “kanoon ke haath lambe hote hain” and “tareekh pe tareekh” are the few associations to the law that immediately come to my mind.
However, typical to mainstream Bollywood films up until very recently, the homogenous styles of storytelling within genres made it hard to imagine these same stories under a new gaze, style, aesthetic or delivery.
Bollywood courtroom dramas, at one point, only consisted of heavily dramatised scenes in the highest court of order, and emotions overflowing - biased judges; a week defence and a rude and snarly offence. Eventually, this sort of film language in portraying legal cases became unanimous with how we expected to see them dished out.
Nonetheless, what continued to make such an otherwise drab and rather bookish subject like law so interesting to filmy-buffs was a look into the unknown.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never walked into court, I’ve only seen the supreme court and high courts from outside, gawked at the penguin-attire advocates wear, and embarrassingly, till very recently, did not know of or had even seen a family court.
So to get the slightest peek into law and order is, to me, still very intriguing. And why not?
While most of us want to stay away from the court of law and legal harassment in our personal life, we enjoy watching courtroom dramas on big screens. The drama, vendetta and tension till the judgement is announced are the things which make scenes fascinating, intriguing and gripping.
For me, what makes legal dramas so gripping is the portrayal of moral dilemmas – ones that we face in our everyday lives - and the ability to show both light and dark of a multi-faceted story - looking deeper, looking beyond face value.
Unlike other genres, what appeals so heavily to viewers in a legal drama is the role of themselves in the story. Their ability to see, understand and then choose what they consider right and wrong. It’s almost like a simulated-court room for the audience as the jury. It leaves power in the hands of a viewer instead of being spoon-fed.
As laws and public policies change, so do the themes presented in legal dramas. And so do the moral dilemmas an audience must tackle, the moral dilemmas a defence must question.
Even though Pink came out barely a year before the me-too movement erupted and changed the way we perceive a woman’s word, in the post-me-too world, this film hit much stronger now than it would, in my opinion, a few years back. In this world, a woman’s word is taken for what it is.
In Aniruddha Roy-Chowdhury’s 2016 film Pink, three women hastily head back to their apartment in South Delhi while another car with a bleeding man and his friends race to the hospital. Back home, Minal (Taapsee Pannu) vigorously wipes the specks of blood on her neck and looks at herself in shock – we realise a little later that she smashed a bottle on Rajvir’s (Angad Bedi) head when he tried to push himself on her, against her will, and that he might, now, lose one eye.
However, the powerful and politically-connected Rajvir must put the girls in their rightful place of silence and submission. So while Minal is kidnapped into a car and molested by Rajvir’s friends, her housemates Falak (Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang) are accused of attempt to murder and prostitution, systematically crushing Minal’s case against Rajvir of molestation.
Out comes a mask-wearing, Darth Vader sounding Amitabh Bachchan from the bush works (quite literally since he occasionally watches Minal jog in their neighbourhood park, from behind bushes) to their rescue. A dormant lawyer with a mysterious personality that borderlines creep to perfection, Deepak Sehgal decides to take the helpless women’s’ case and represent them in court.
Now, while on the face of it, it’s still upsetting to see men having to play knights in shining armour to rescue helpless women from their situation, I believe enough on it has been said for the industry to take note and create strong, complicated female lawyers. Take Taapsee Pannu’s character in Mulk where she plays the Hindu daughter-in-law to a Muslim family being accused of terrorism ties, or Maya Sarao’s strong but lost-in-the-system character in Thappad, playing lawyer to Taapsee Pannu’s character who wants a divorce over a simple slap, something that eventually leads Sarao’s character to emancipate herself from her loveless marriage. And therefore, while I strongly suggest you watch both Mulk and Thappad, both by Anubhav Sinha’s recent genius, I will not diverge or touch upon the topic.
Back to Pink. As the legal proceedings consume the second act of the film, topics of feminism, scrutiny of women and sexual assault come into play. Deepak Sehgal, through cross-examinations, and, under the farce (or not) of male-gazed eyes, questions the women of their supposed crimes, only to obliterate the belief that women of a certain type invite sexual assault.
Hidden beneath sexual assault and power-play is the uncomfortable topic of consent that Pink’s courtroom scenes allow an audience to ponder upon.
A concept still lost on many Indian men and not taught to many Indian women, Sehgal reiterates in the courtroom, time and time again, that a no means a no - that a woman, however, you may perceive her, whatever mind-numbing category you place her under, it gives you no reason to evade her personal space when she does not allow it.
Unlike the previous standards of such films, where the epitome of a sati-savitri is maliciously accused and fights to redeem herself like in Damini, Pink makes no excuses for the women and their apparent ‘type’. These women drink, smoke, are sexually active, live independently and are unmarried, but the director lets them be so unabashedly.
Pink doesn’t attempt to give us a 3000-piece puzzle and make us solve it, it merely gives us that damned black and blue (or white and gold) dress from 2015 and forces us to see it with our own eyes and figure what its true colors are.
The film's critique of men in power feels like an absolutely necessary counter to the overt sexism and misogyny that is present in our culture. But perhaps more than anything else, the film delves deep into the human instinct to pass judgment on others, especially when those 'others' are women - that judgment being literally transported to a courtroom to show the direct impact that opinions and views have on changing people’s lives drastically - making the audience inspect how their ways of viewing the world, in this case, viewing women, has a direct impact on shifting the role of women in society.
But quite on the other end of the spectrum of uproarious and table-banging courtrooms, stand-alone dialogue deliveries and evidence-laced scenes are films like Court that show the every-day mundane and sometimes absurd, out of the ordinary legalities of lower courts.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s national award-winning 2015 Marathi film Court, has none of the glitz and glamour of A-listers or nail-biting scenes, but to many, including myself, is probably one of the best films within this genre in many many years to come.
The movie is inspired by a case against activist-ballad singer Jeetan Marandi of Jharkhand for his so-called links with Left-wing extremists. Narayan Kamble (Vira Satidhar), a social activist who tours with his troupe around working-class localities of Mumbai singing songs of emancipation and societal and class struggle, is arrested for abetment of suicide when a sewage worker kills himself after apparently listening to one of Kamble’s songs.
An absurd charge, the offence claims the sewage worker went into a manhole without protective gear in a premeditated fashion to suffocate and die. While Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), an educated, upper-middle-class lawyer defends Narayan Kamble’s case, an evocative in her rotundness Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), plays the state defence - a striking opposite to Gomber’s character. She is simple, speaks English to perfection but not ease, and looks at the case parochially and with a general lack of compassion.
Pradeep Joshi’s character as the Judge portrays a completely different but all too recognizable side of the legal system in India. Stuck in his ways of upholding the traditions of the court - especially in a bizarre scene muted in hilarity where he refuses to hear a woman’s case since she’s in a sleeveless salwar, for him, against proper dress code in court – and like Kulkarni, seems uninterested in the emotional depth of a court case, more in wrapping his day’s work and heading home in the vicious, brain-dead cycle of living life as a Mumbaikar.
The unremarkable case with a dreary undertaking perfectly shows the state of India’s unexcitable, lacklustre and often dysfunctional legal system. While even an unseasoned eye can tell the thought behind the static shots and muted colors on screen - the portrayal of things as they are without any fluff, the depiction of scenarios and spaces as is in Court, possibly shows us courtrooms as authentically as possible.
Tamhane treats the Indian legal system and everything that comes with it – the courtroom, lawyers, judges, legal cases and accused sort of like a dish- showing us what everything looks like on the surface but then, through unassuming scenes, the ingredients that went into creating it.
Nutan’s role at home still as the wife who cooks and feeds her family contributes to her lack of passion for a court case when she has other things on her mind to worry about. Vora’s place of privilege as a man who doesn’t even need to look at the price of an item he buys at the grocery store, (really, a place of huge privilege) weighs in to his drive to contribute to social-justice cases, because, he has the time and resources to worry about lives other than his. The case alone shows the vicious cycle of a lower-class man being victimised in trying to emancipate another working-class man, but with a concrete roof unbreakable to certain strata of society, both achieve only sorrow and suffering from their realization of their place in Indian society.
Court allows for the audience to fall through their screen into the film and double up as jury, judge and witness, taking in this stark case of classism and caste-ism, and really ponder on it in a real setting.
It is in the nature of humans to see justice delivered, to see the accused served for wrongfulness, and to see an innocent person exonerated of blame and accusation. Courtroom dramas that engulf and captivate audiences usually possess factors of suspense and mystery steeped in riddles and thoughtful conundrum that, when put together masterfully in one piece, can bewilder an audience to a point where the truth is in front of your eyes but you just can’t be sure.
They allow us to immerse ourselves in all aspects of the story and relate with the characters till we feel torn, sometimes, between both sides of the story, or passionate about what we justify as right.
And with powerful declamations delivered with perfection to audiences about topics that need addressing, be it religious equality in Mulk, Consent and Gender Dynamics in Pink, Class struggles in Court or accusations of terrorism in Shahid, acquitting injustice allows us all to feel a sense of righteousness that we, as humans, crave.
Good courtroom dramas help us to question our assumptions. They allow us to ponder upon social order. They allow us to humanize the seemingly bad, and debate the seemingly good, but most of all, it allows us to understand the limits of our own moralities, question our notions of the world, and better our own judgment to become humans more fit for this modern, ever-changing world.
What according to you makes the courtroom dramas entertaining and engaging? Tell us your thoughts in comments!!
Court Fan Art by Gaurav Wakankar - https://www.instagram.com/p/BSDd8oKlo4X/
Venice Film Review: Court - https://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/venice-film-review-court-1201299771/
Pink: A Bollywood film about India's rape culture - https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-37426720
Reuters Movie review: Pink - https://in.reuters.com/article/movie-review-pink-bollywood-idINKCN11M0IH