Law and justice in Hindi cinema


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IN ‘Awaara’, an iconic 1951 film, a man and a woman are in the middle of an impassioned argument. He tells her: tum ek judge ki ward ho, aur main ek awaara, kya kahegi tumhari society? (You are the ward of a judge, and I am a ruffian, what will your society say?)

The film arrays the pair on either side of a seemingly insurmountable divide, till true love rears its head in challenge. Raj, played by Raj Kapoor, and Rita, by Nargis, both legendary actors, exemplify the difference: he, brought up as a small-time lout, was born to a good family; and she has been brought up in wealth, but wasn’t born to it.

The audience is privy to the secret that the film, directed by Kapoor, bases its conflict on. We know that Justice Raghunath, the father of the ‘awaara’ Raj, heartlessly abandoned the woman he impregnated. The same man has been magnanimous and caring to his ward. The film raises many pertinent questions – about nature and nurture, the complexity of human nature, the redemptive power of love, crime and punishment – and at the core of it all, the importance of justice.

In 1951, India was still a new nation, still addressing and dressing the deep wounds of Partition, still struggling to bring its staggeringly disparate peoples under one umbrella. This struggle for coherence was reflected in the era’s cinema, which was using the power of storytelling to create an idea of a country, of composite-ness. Entertainment and education were expected to go hand in hand in those days: a film needed to be a message in a bottle to go mainstream, to spread its wares among the masses. India, then and now, has spoken in many tongues: popular Hindi cinema became, by default and design, the language everyone understood. By creating an accessible grammar, it allowed people to easily distinguish between good and bad, hero and villain, right and wrong, and familiar characters (and events). As it grew in reach and popularity, the language of cinema became the shorthand by which many socio-economic complexities became understandable. What’s noteworthy is that by and large, the sway it holds on popular imagination remains undiminished.


The Indian film industry, one of the most robust and prolific in the world, had been a useful subversive tool during the independence movement. Sneaking in codes for nationalism and freedom past the British censors was a significant part of what the pre-Independence film community had busied itself with; post-1947, through the ’50s, much of popular cinema became an integral part of nation-building, its makers called upon to create works1 which would promote amity and peace. It also created a common, accessible framework of understanding for the new Indian in this bewildering new India, with its ever-widening chasms between class and caste, the pushes and pulls of traditionalism vs individualism, and subsuming all else, the concept of fairness and justice.

A sense of idealism and optimism was evident in the films of the time. But, as urbanization grew, and cities became the site of exploitation and crime, filmmakers began showing the harshness and alienation of city life. The contrast between the traditional and the modern became a staple thematic thread, too. The India vs Bharat debate, which found a home in mainstream Indian cinema, played out in as many ways as there were films. In ‘Awaara’, a film much ahead of its times, Rita is a free-spirited, independent, working girl. She has a profession. She is a lawyer, which is significant to the plot. But even with all her privilege, she has to bow to the wishes of her powerful male guardian, or at least, not actively disobey his commands. Her feelings for Raj stay steadfast, though, and that’s one of the most ‘modern’ things about the film – her education and profession lead her to create a path of justice for the beleaguered Raj. She holds up a mirror to Justice Raghunath, played by Prithiviraj Kapoor, who confesses to his ‘sins’, begging his son’s pardon towards the end.


The idea that some people were beyond reproach, spotless of reputation and scrupulously fair in intent and execution, is clearly seen in some of the early films of the time particularly in the character of the unbending, righteous, learned judge, who rules from on high. Courtroom dramas became a staple feature in the techni-coloured, song-filled entertainers of the ’60s, in which lawyers, both for defence and prosecution, conducted the trial accompanied by high drama: some of the most popular films of the decade (B.R. Chopra’s ‘Kanoon’ (1960), Shankar Mukherjee’s ‘Baat Ek Raat Ki’ (1962), Yash Chopra’s ‘Waqt’ (1965) spent a substantial amount of their run time in court-rooms, trading colourful dialogues and scoring points. And providing us with a satisfying end, through which we lived happily ever after.

However, a degree of complexity, injected in cautious, calibrated doses, had started creeping into the plots. Primarily, of course, heroes still had to be unsullied, and heroines had to be pure and virginal, but sometimes these characters were allowed to be less than perfect. In the blockbuster musical, ‘Waqt’, the oldest son of a once-rich businessman is a thief, stylishly played a big star of the time, Raj Kumar: we enjoy his rakish shenanigans because we know that they will be short-lived. In any case, his saintly mother and squeaky-clean brother, played by the cherubic Shashi Kapoor, more than makes up for the moral ambiguities of the brother. Audiences were slowly getting used to the fact that their heroes could be a tad tainted, as long as they were made to pay for their sins, either by dying or going to jail. But legal luminaries remained beyond reproach.


In ‘Baat Ek Raat Ki’ (1962), Dev Anand’s character, a lawyer, lies to the leading lady, played by Waheeda Rehman. But he does it with the best intentions, in order to save her from the gallows. It’s a murder mystery, done with a degree of finesse, with some of the best music in the history of Hindi cinema, but the courtroom proceedings have equal weightage: ‘kanoon ka sabse bada naara hai, chahe gyarah khooni bach jaaye, par ek begunaah ko hargiz sazaa nahin honi chahiye’ (even if 11 killers go free; one innocent should not be punished). These dialogues, delivered by the hero, assured us that in the fictional universe of the movies, at least, idealism still existed. The innocent would survive, the guilty would be punished.

It was in the ’70s that radical changes began to sweep across India. It was a decade of great unrest and political turbulence, which led to the Emergency, and its fallout. The state, increasingly turning into a space of conflict and contention, was reflected in the rise of violence in the movies. A standard rule of thumb that came to be accepted within Hindi cinema was the distinction between law – symbolized through formal institutions like the courts and the police, and informally through codes of behaviour and mores and justice. The inability of the law to deliver became more pronounced as vigilante justice gradually established itself as acceptable: you could be on the wrong side of the law, but you should always be on the right side of justice.


Some of the best films of the time redefined the meaning of mainstream by borrowing from real-time events and situations. Such films as Prakash Mehra’s ‘Zanjeer’ (1974), Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Sholay’ (1975) and Yash Chopra’s ‘Deewar’ (1975), a tryptich which created a memorable slate of policemen, lawyers, judges and criminals, tipped us over, definitively, from an era of idealism into the era of cynicism.

‘Zanjeer’ gave us our first flawed Hindi cinema hero, an upright policeman who uses anger as a weapon. What was also new was how that anger was used as a moral imperative, which spoke for the innocent, the deprived, the oppressed, the poor. Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man persona, represented the voice of the dispossessed: if you were unfairly done against, his character, very often named Vijay (victory), would fight for you, tooth and nail. He would fight alone, and he would emerge the last man standing. Bachchan’s Vijay was the ultimate messiah, the hero the era demanded. It did not matter that his characters so often took the law into their hands, that they broke the law knowing full well that they were doing so. What mattered was that they fought for the people who couldn’t fight for themselves.

The rough and ready ways of a cop beating up a bad guy started getting normalized, and gained full throated approval from the audience: they knew that the ‘system’ was rotten and corrupt, so the only way out was for the cop to turn vigilante. In a world where hope from conventional justice had become elusive, the righteous judge began receding from film plots: the vigilante policeman started becoming the default hero.

The standard climactic scenes in which a posse of policemen would arrive to carry off the villains, gave away to the solo cop towering over a cowering villain, bloodied and bowed. Courtroom high jinks stopped getting as much traction as they used to. The issues revolving around justice moved to the new realism-driven ‘parallel cinema’ of the ’70s and ’80s, which emerged as a pushback against escapist popular cinema. But the upholders of the law in these films were not the untouchables they once were. Cracks had begun appearing in the bastion which was once considered inviolable: the police and the judiciary were as susceptible to the vagaries of the system as were the rest of us.


Parallel cinema focused on societal fault lines, for which the mainstream had no appetite, or skill. These were films made on the plight of the marginalized, those who belonged to the lower caste and class. Such filmmakers as Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, and Govind Nihalani showed us how systemic brutality and oppression, and a dangerous mix of feudalism and curdled socialism, had caused the very concept of justice to disappear from chunks of our society. Landlords and moneylenders were still as much villains as they used to be in the 1950s classics ‘Mother India’, and ‘Do Bigha Zameen’, but now, in the ’70s and ’80s, no gun-toting mother would come to the rescue of the poor tribal, no hero would come galloping to save the woman raped repeatedly by the wealthy men who employed her husband.


One of the most impactful films of the early ’80s is Govind Nihalani’s ‘Aakrosh’, which gives us a tribal prisoner, played by the late, great Om Puri. He is in jail for murder, and the lawyer assigned to his case, played by Naseeruddin Shah, tries very hard to get him to speak. It was one of the first Hindi movies to employ the power of silence: Bhiku Lahanya’s muteness is heartbreakingly eloquent. As Shah unravels the corrupt nexus between the lawyers and the police and the privileged class, there is nothing he can do to help Lahanya, who comes from a section of society which has been nearly invisibilized, as if the progress that the nation had made till then has passed them by. The film is a searing comment on how privilege, position and male entitlement, become an impenetrable layer. Even the hope of justice from a system which is broken, is futile.

Nihalani followed this up with ‘Ardha-Satya’ (1983), which can be read as a companion piece to ‘Aakrosh’. ‘Ardh-Satya’ is a textbook case of how a broken society leads to a broken law and order system, and the cycle that it sets up is vicious, never-ending. Puri plays Anant Velankar, a policeman who starts off humane, interested in the world around him, in poetry, in the love of a good woman, and who ends up as dehumanized as his corrupt, numbed colleagues. Watching it today, one is struck by just how deep the rot had already set in: Rama Shetty, played by Sadashiv Amrapurkar, is not the cartoonish villains we had been used to seeing, not the oversized Mogambos or the Shakaals who lorded it over in their dens with their equally cartoonish molls and goons. Amrapurkar is chillingly real, a man who has learned how to press the buttons of the people who can turn his wrongs into right.


Where is the idea of justice in a world that is ruled by the Rama Shettys? You did not even need to be a mobster to create an imbalance between a genteel, gentle old order and a new world full of bluster and ugliness; you could just be an urban landlord who is only interested in money. In Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s 1984 ‘Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho’, we see an old couple forced into going to court to demand their rights as tenants, and how the unholy nexus between a couple of greedy lawyers and an unfeeling, labyrinthine judicial system, drives them into the ground. The film was shockingly real, showing us how a normal citizen has no real recourse against injustice: the law works only for the rich. Bachchan’s Kalia says in the eponymous film (1981) – ‘aaj ki duniya mein jurm itna kamyab hai, aur kanoon kitna bebas’ (in this world, injustice succeeds and the law fails to uphold its duty). As villains began to triumph, the idea of meaningful justice began to wither away.

The conflicts between increasingly criminalized power structures and the corresponding weakening of upholders of law and order returned to mainstream Hindi cinema with the advent of the North Indian hinterland in Mumbai-centric Bollywood. Such filmmakers as Prakash Jha, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, began altering the landscape, language, and iconography of the movies. The portrayal of a leaking, corrupt police-and-legal system and the political class became much more trenchant. The on-the-take lawyers and bent cops were no longer treated with shock and awe. Instead, they were presented stripped of melodrama, and with as much matter-of-factness as Hindi movies allowed themselves.

‘Gangajal’ (2002), directed by Jha, is based on the 1980 Bhagalpur blindings. It gave us an upright cop, played by Ajay Devgn, up against an entire ecosystem hollowed out by caste and class oppression, and religious malfeasance. The film employed a language which we instantly recognized as new, even if Devgn was still an old-style hero who is primed to win. After ‘Gangajal’ came another similar cop-and-criminal story in E. Niwas’s ‘Shool’, in which Manoj Bajpayee’s straight-arrow policeman walks into Motihari, another Bihar small town, and is forced into picking up a gun to shoot the bad guys dead, in a hall of legislature. There was a time when this would be considered sacrilege. But given the nature of the beast, there is no other option, no other way to ensure justice. Both the wins (in both films) were hard fought, hard got.


In the new millennium, Big Bollywood’s go-to vehicles have been the hyper-masculine, hyper-violent rage-and-revenge cop melodramas like ‘Dabangg’, ‘Singham’, ‘Rowdy Rathore’, ‘Simbba’, and other similar outings helmed by Bollywood superstars. The heroes are Robin Hood style characters, squaring up against vicious villains and standing up for the victimized common man, but their films are so full of misogyny and terrible anti-feminist tropes, that justice, when it does come, feels coarsened. The universe of female cops (‘Mardaani’) is as problematic as the ones dominated by their male compatriots: just the lead character being played by a leading female star doesn’t change the complexion of these trigger-happy films.

What happens when we watch films which focus on the normalization of custodial torture and extra judicial violence? While audiences start by being repulsed, there is also the fear of being desensitized about ordinary people becoming collateral damage in a larger quest for ‘justice’. In Hansal Mehta’s ‘Shahid’ (2013), an incident of communal violence helps lure the protagonist to become the militant across the border; disillusioned by this he returns home and is picked by the police. Unsettling custodial torture takes place within the first 20 minutes of the film – we see Shahid stripped of everything except his Muslim identity. Vishal Bharadwaj’s ‘Haider’ (2014) further deconstructs the idea of a highly securitized state and the consequences cycles of violence has on its people; raising the question: whose justice is being met?


Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s ‘Pink’ (2016) is that rare mainstream Hindi film in which the portrayal of the ‘victims’ and the ‘aggressors’ is spot on. A group of young women have an unpleasant experience on an evening spent with some young men; instead of owning up to their mistakes, that bunch of aggressive, politically connected, entitled young men go after them, besmirching their reputation. Amitabh Bachchan, who plays their lawyer, defends them in court, with lines that hadn’t been heard in Hindi movies before. His performance, heightened-by-drama but effective nonetheless, reminding one of Sunny Deol’s memorable turn in Rajkumar Santoshi’s ‘Damini’ (1993), is key to a judgement in favour of the young women. If a girl says no, it means no. Things are set to the right, and justice is delivered.

Lawyers can be fun too. Entertainment is the buzzword of such films as Subhash Kapoor’s ‘Jolly LLB’ part one and two, and the films are careful to not get too dark, or too unappetizing. It’s not as if we hadn’t seen all of this before, but especially in the sequel (2017), in which Jolly (played by Bollywood star Akshay Kumar) discovers his noble side after a struggle with his dodgy side, we see the old-fashioned notion of justice (via a great act from Saurabh Shukla) being amped up, much to our satisfaction. There is always something to be said for the straight and narrow, and the just, and so what if it is fictional, right?


But for my money, if I had to choose one film which shows up the innards of the legal system being hung out to dry, it would be Chaitanya Tamhane’s ‘Court’ (2015). It isn’t strictly a Hindi film. Its characters speak Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, English, and as it based in melting pot Mumbai, it feels right. A long-time activist is held responsible for the suicide of a municipal worker, and as the case winds its way through the courts, we see how torturously the wheels of justice grind, impacted by the prosecutor’s prejudices and the defence’s priorities. Tamhane’s film is not interested in drama, or creating any noise. It stays steady for long moments, giving us a chance to observe people who don’t really cross our sight-lines, and shows how the legal system works, or not, depending upon how connected you are, or not. A revolutionary poet is to be thrown into jail for the death of a man who cleans our gutters. Who really cares? That little snippet wouldn’t make headlines, would it? It’s a beautifully realized film that hits you where it hurts.

It can be argued that ‘Court’, not really ‘mainstream’, much more an ‘indie’ (independent) film, had the freedom to go where many fear to tread. But what’s heartening is that a few prominent Bollywood filmmakers are now choosing strong realism over empty escapism, not just as a throwaway crutch, but as full-fledged flavour. Anubhav Sinha’s ‘Mulk’ (2018) and ‘Article 15’ (2019) are examples of how a filmmaker who has to be careful of commercial imperatives can still make a mainstream film with meaning. ‘Mulk’, which raises pertinent questions on the current dispensation’s focus on religious identities, patriotism and nationalism, places one of its main characters (a lawyer) in the dock, and gets him to articulate important points on these contentious issues.

‘Article 15’ zeroes in on how even today, casteism, classism, patriarchy, ugly machoism, and all other concomitant ‘isms’, colour and define so many aspects of our lives, and how even the expectation of justice depends on which side we have been born on. The lead character, a policeman, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, acts as a disruptor in the rural outpost he takes charge of. The power play between outsiders and insiders, the age-old discrimination between castes playing out in subtle and not-so subtle ways, and its lethal outcome, are woven into the narrative. Despite its exaggerated flourishes, the film comes off as a powerful comment on our times.


Changes in the national ethos are decisively reflected in the films – from the optimism of the Nehruvian phase to the bleak tempestuousness of the 1970s and 1980s, and the rising political and social uncertainties of today’s times. Justice (insaaf) and law (kanoon) retain their core meanings, even if their significance waxes and wanes, as does the fortune of the hero and the villain. While we still want good to win over evil, the conviction that justice will always be served, has become elusive. This is an unfortunate reality for too many of us, in today’s India, where justice remains a chimera. Both real life, and reel lives tell us so.