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Courtroom dramas make for fascinating film material, fiction or non-fiction: consider, for example, Judgment at Nuremberg, Witness for the Prosecution, Anatomy of a Murder among others. In India, however, the genre hasn’t quite taken off despite quite a few stabs at it, primarily because the courtroom in our cinema has largely been a space for high-octane rhetoric and dialogue-baazi bordering on the theatrical. Also, unlike a, say, Judgment at Nuremberg, we have very little when it comes to the cinematic depiction of real-life court cases. Add to that our propensity to take ludicrous creative licence with facts (the film versions of the K.M. Nanavati case, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke [1963] and Rustom [2016], for example), and the wholly satisfying courtroom experience has more or less eluded our cinema.

Which is probably what has piqued interest in Srijit Mukherji’s film, produced by SVF Entertainment, based as it is, in the words of the director, on “one of the most incredible sagas ever to unfold in the annals of Indian judicial history, involving elements of politics, self-governance, identity as a philosophy, history, art, medicine, toxicology and aspects of behavioural sciences”. In terms of intrigue, including allegations of murder by poisoning, hints of an extramarital affair, unwanted pregnancy, incest, claims on the considerable fortunes of the estate, and involving elements of the classic “return of the missing heir” feature, there are few cases that can match the Bhawal Sanyasi trial.

The facts around the case are the stuff of the finest of thrillers. Ramendra Narayan Ray, the second kumar of Bhawal (a prosperous zamindari estate, now in Bangladesh) was declared to have died of syphilis in Darjeeling in 1909. His wife Bibhabati and brother-in-law were with him in his last moments. There was considerable uncertainty involving the cremation – a persistent rumour that although the kumar’s body had been taken to the cremation ground, it had not been cremated – amidst the sensational claim by one of the retinue of servants, Sharif Khan, that so corrosive was the kumar’s vomit that it made holes in his clothes!

In terms of intrigue, including allegations of murder by poisoning, hints of an extramarital affair, unwanted pregnancy, incest, claims on the considerable fortunes of the estate, and involving elements of the classic “return of the missing heir” feature, there are few cases that can match the Bhawal Sanyasi trial.  

Twelve years later, in 1921, a sadhu arrived in Dhaka. Amidst growing rumours of his resemblance to the ‘dead’ raja, his sister identified him as the kumar. The Court of Wards, the imperial administrators of the Bhawal estate, however, rejected the claim. Bibhabati also refused to acknowledge the sadhu as her husband. In 1930, a declaratory suit was filed in Dhaka by the sadhu, ‘claiming the name and property of Ramendra Narayan Ray’. The judgment delivered in 1936 went in favour of the plaintiff. The widow appealed first to the Calcutta High Court and then to the Privy Council in London, which delivered its final judgment in favour of the claimant in July 1946. In a surreal twist to an already convoluted affair, the ‘kumar’ went to the Thanthania Kali temple to offer puja the next day, only to collapse on the way back home and die. Divine justice?

Given how it stirred popular imagination – songs, verses, pamphlets, works of fiction, even the Uttam Kumar starrer Sannyasi Raja, though that steered clear of the trial – Srijit has been no stranger to the case. “I have grown up with the story, first heard it from my grandmother. In fact, my sister had a friend from that family. It was almost a fairy tale for us in many ways. The sequence of events was so cinematic and yet true – that’s what drew me to it. I was also fascinated by the meticulous detailing and the range of subjects lawyers from both sides touched upon.”

What Srijit also underlines is the nationalistic tones that underpinned the trial – which isn’t surprising given that the events spanned the years from 1909 to 1946 when India was moving towards self-government. “The wave of nationalism and demand for self-governance made it bigger than what a case of this kind would otherwise be.” It’s a point that Partha Chatterjee – whose seminal book A Princely Impostor? was one of the primary sources that Srijit tapped into for his research, apart from Murad Fyzee’s A Prince, Poison and Two Funerals – too makes. It has been argued that the Indian judges used the case to assert their ‘ability to understand and weigh evidence, to assess local factors, and to decide on truth in a way that reflected their nationalist convictions’. That the Privy Council validated the decision of the Indian courts was seen as vindication of their ability to decide their own matters.

Events spanning thirty-seven years, a trial that went on for sixteen, twenty-six volumes of evidence – the challenges facing Srijit were manifold. According to Partha Chatterjee, the Amrita Bazar Patrika carried three or more broadsheets, more than twenty full columns of reports on each day’s hearings.  

Events spanning thirty-seven years, a trial that went on for sixteen, twenty-six volumes of evidence – the challenges facing Srijit were manifold. According to Chatterjee, the Amrita Bazar Patrika carried three or more broadsheets, more than twenty full columns of reports on each day’s hearings. “The most challenging factor was to include arguments of a sixteen-year-old case in a two-hour film especially when almost every turn of event, every witness, every line of questioning was cinematic. Then there was this desire to weave in a specific feminist reading of the case, my personal take, which led me  to fictionalize one character, one of the two lawyers, and go the ‘inspired by’-with-fictional-names route for the narrative.”

In what is probably the most incredible aspect of the case, the claimant’s petition was held by a majority of the judges, while in every other instance of similar cases thus far, the claimant had been judged to be an impostor. It’s also fascinating that the mystery sustains to this day despite the Privy Council’s judgment. Despite his extensive research into the case, even Partha Chatterjee admits that he isn’t sure if the sadhu who appeared in Dhaka in 1921 was indeed the second kumar of Bhawal. As such, what Srijit makes of the judgment is of considerable interest – and he is not giving anything away as yet. Watch this space.

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