Directors: Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vishal Furia
Available On: Hotstar
Criminal Justice is a ten-episode show that more or less misses the point of its source material. It is officially based on the first season of Peter Moffat’s 2008 BBC series of the same name. But it was the American (HBO) version by Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, The Night Of, that managed to marry the plurality of sociopolitical context with the singularity of the quintessential murder-mystery plot. Riz Ahmed starred as the young Pakistani-American man in Queens accused of murder after waking up next to the butchered body of a girl he slept with. The eerie, slow-burning pace of the series reflected the gloomy inevitability of a Muslim minority colliding with the xenophobic conscience of a post-9/11 justice system.
But with Criminal Justice, starring Vikrant Massey as unfortunate Mumbai man Aditya Sharma, writer Sridhar Raghavan chooses to overlook the golden opportunity at his disposal. The show, over ten 45-minute episodes, inexplicably retains the broody pace of the story without quite internalizing the reason to do so. One might argue that the Indian justice system is inherently slow and frustrating and replete with minor distractions, irrespective of the religion or skin-colour of the accused on trial. It’s testing enough for the common man thrown at the mercy of the great Indian bureaucracy; would “adapting” the minority angle just be a token decision? But imagine a young Pakistani man – O.K., make that Muslim with Pakistani roots – accused of rape and murder in the India of 2019: that is, an angry post-Pulwama India ruled, and stoked, by a right-wing government. There’s not much to imagine, actually. The prospect is scary but challenging. One would be hard-pressed to find a more relevant time to examine the psychology of a nation through the lens the Indian legal and policing ecosystem.
Yet, “middle-class” seems to be the thematic crutch of the Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vishal Furia directed show. Even if we look at the series for what it is, Criminal Justice fails to earn our empathy by any means that haven’t been employed by hundreds of emotionally manipulative, citizen-versus-system Bollywood movies over the years. Aditya hails from a modest family with tragic faces – his ageing parents have a tiny grocery store, his pregnant sister has an abusive husband. Innocent-looking boy has a mysterious fling, night becomes nightmare, goes to jail, trial by media, gangster prison life is juxtaposed with outer world collapsing, courtroom drama, all hope lost, grandstand “lawyer” ending reminiscent of famous Madhur Bhandarkar premise. The soundscape is especially garish. The small-time lawyer’s (Pankaj Tripathi) underdog-ness is needlessly highlighted by a cartoonish background score; a ‘90s-villain vulturous howl punctuates the entry of a jailbird pervert; Mortal Combat video-game music dots Aditya’s prison brawls; tragic violins ring in the air when helpless old people appear on the screen; the stern judge pauses for effect, as if she were being edited by a reality-show producer, while reading out the all-important verdict.
There were signs of this “television” treatment in the first episode, in the way the girl, a future corpse, erratically behaves: She rides in Aditya’s cab, disoriented and drug-addled, alternating between screaming class-addled expletives at him and warming up to him, as if she were invoking the Kangana of movies past. Their exchange at her home is crucial, given that it sets the base for the entire investigation, and for the narrative to secure enough bandwidth to keep revisiting the space in flashbacks. But their coupling is superficially designed: The girl dances awkwardly (sexily?) before seducing him by way of an apology for ruining his party plans. There is no visual intrigue, no daring, to their out-of-body experience; The Night Of even hinted at the boy mildly falling in love with this fragile but ethereal girl. You simply sense that the director here wants to wrap up the night so that the plot can branch out into an existential critique of a trigger-happy system.
There are a few redeeming aspects, though. The alliterative names (Madhav Misra, Mandira Mathur) of the two defence lawyers, signifying a superhero-supervillain tussle. The lack of “Mumbai” – both physically and allegorically – in the series other than the opening episode, which is somewhat an extension of Adi’s confined point-of-view and his family’s closed-door fate. The character of the inspector on the case, Raghu Salian: an enraged father of a teen-aged daughter who is determined to punish Adi as more of a personal statement. Not the lead performances (Massey is a bit inconsistent; Tripathi is barely challenged), but the supporting turns – especially by Jackie Shroff, who is an inspired choice as a street-smart prison don (his bhidus and darlings, for once, feel right at home in an eccentric setting). Shroff playing a civilized, well-read man (like, say, in RAW) in big-budget dramas feels way more performative – and rehearsed – than his freewheeling act here. Mita Vashisht, who I’ve always felt was born to play a bigshot no-nonsense lawyer, is eye-catching as a bigshot no-nonsense lawyer who takes up Adi’s case on a pro-bono (publicity-friendly) basis. Pankaj Saraswat, as the cop, quietly channels the rage of an entire career spent turning a blind eye towards rich daddy’s (criminal) kids.
Perhaps the most significant way Criminal Justice falls short in is with its handling of the protagonist. We are supposed to recognize the irony of a naive boy gradually transforming into a corrupted (either by drugs or power) man in prison while the law takes its own sweet time. So that, by the time his day of reckoning arrives, it is of little consequence. But Adi’s prison story, too, is afforded an absolute three-act narrative – that of a simultaneous mentor-mentee movie – rather than an open-ended ambiguity that might have made the series more reflective. Therefore, each episode is densely packed with scenes. This is exclusively a Tigmanshu Dhulia problem – the tendency to expand a one-and-a-half-year-long story with information and kinetic energy rather than atmosphere and potential energy.
The maximum philosophy the imagery attempts is the shot of a chapel’s Cross of Jesus on the night of the incident: Adi is going to be crucified by those who do not understand him. But Christ was, of course, betrayed by one of his own. Judas, then, represents the lack of courage exhibited by the creators of Criminal Justice.