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A scene from 1965’s Waqt
A scene from 1965’s Waqt

Drama in the court

The courtroom scene has become a benchmark for how far we have come from the hyper-dramatic traditions of Hindi cinema

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

It is a very long way from Sunny Deol’s snarling “taareekh pe taareekh" in the 1993 Damini to the deliberately static, held shot of a lawyer reading out a lengthy statement about a case in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, her voice as inexpressive and bored as Deol’s was emotion-drenched. In other contemporary films like Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, shots of lawyers bickering and fumbling over documents have the spare, naturalistic feel of cinéma vérité—on view here is not the stylized courtroom where lies and truth are in timeless conflict but a more mundane setting, with hassled, sweat-soaked people speaking legalese almost mechanically.

A scene from 2015’s Court
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A scene from 2015’s Court

In the Hindi-film context, I love old-style courtroom scenes when they are done with verve and fit a given situation—a classic example being in the 1965 Waqt, where Balraj Sahni’s Lala Kedarnath is reunited with his family against the backdrop of a murder trial, and the court scenes serve a clear dramatic function in a story that is already much larger than life. Look at everything at stake in this narrative: Milord ki kasam, why would you want it to be presented in drily realistic terms!

So, to a degree, the difference in form is dictated by the type of case. But it isn’t always that straightforward either. Consider a film like the 1984 Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!, in which Balraj Sahni’s brother Bhisham played a poor man trying to get his crumbling chawl home fixed. Since the scale has been pared from the grand court of mainstream Hindi cinema to the small-cause court of the cinema of struggle, those who haven’t seen Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! might think it is a “quiet", “subdued" film. Actually, it is about as subdued as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, whose manic, college-skit mode it closely mimics at times. To depict the numbing passage of time during a trial, it employs a farcical mode that is at a remove from Court’s straight-faced realism or Damini’s straight-faced melodrama: Scenes are presented as speeded-up vignettes, the courtroom bell clangs in the middle of an intense argument, the Naseeruddin Shah character sighs “teen saal guzar gaye (three years have gone by)", and we see that he now has a moustache. Such moments are played for humour, but then we see old, feeble Mohan Joshi in the background and the laugh sticks in the throat.

I feel that quick judgements about courtroom scenes tend to over-simplify the issue of “realism" in cinema. The fact is, even when voices are lowered and there is no overt dialogue-baazi, a courtroom can be very similar to a rangmanch or stage, and there is usually a degree of performance involved. Lawyers, the plaintiff, the accused, even witnesses present carefully thought out versions of themselves for maximum impact. Writing about the 1959 Anatomy Of A Murder, one of the best trial films ever made, Kim Newman observed that James Stewart and George C. Scott played their parts with an understanding of how lawyers “have to be not only great actors but stars, assuming personalities that exaggerate their inner selves and weighing every outburst and objection for the effect it has on the poor saps in the jury box".

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

Above The Line is a new fortnightly column on contemporary Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

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