The husband is a successful, popular, charismatic lawyer. He is a messiah to his clients, and a loving father, dutiful son and brother, a warm friend. But what is he like to his wife, who sees him at his most intimate moments? Why does she stab him one night, in what is clearly a cold-blooded attempt to murder? Worse, the murder happens with their daughter in the next room, who later has to face the gory sight of her father stuck with a knife in his abdomen.
Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors, created by Apurva Asrani, Siddharth Hirwe and Peter Moffat, directed by Arjun Mukherjee and Rohan Sippy, and streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, tries to decode the intricacies and aftermath of domestic abuse. Abuse that is not obvious to society, as it happens only between husband and wife in the privacy of their bedroom. Abuse that is mental, emotional and sexual, something that the victim is not even conscious of. Abuse that brings shame to the victim, instead of the perpetrator.
Putting in a stellar act, Kirti Kulhari excels in the role of Anuradha Chandra, the confused, vulnerable, often delusional wife, who is subjected to systematic stalking, torture and rape by her husband. The series traces her tumultuous journey from the night of the murder to the day of her judgement, in which she has no one from her own family to support her. Her daughter hates her, her father is cold and unconcerned, her in-laws blame her. And she herself is in self-punitive mode for having "broken" her "perfect" family.
Maadhav Mishra, the street-smart yet soft-hearted lawyer, takes up her case and gets sucked into her tale of betrayal and unhealed pain. He is ably complemented and often guided by his junior colleague, Nikhat Hussain, who has her own demons to conquer. There is the victim who doesn't speak, the evidence is incriminating, and the odds are firmly stacked against them. How they manoeuvre the dark alleys of the unknown, and get due justice for the "criminal" is what the series documents.
Accusations flow thick and fast as the courtroom proceedings go on. But in the guise of a courtroom drama, what plays before us is also an incisive commentary on domestic abuse and brutal violence, something that countless Indian women face on a daily basis. The underlying social message is unmissable, and elevates the show from being just another thriller to a more in-depth documentation of abuse and its far-reaching consequences.
We, as the hapless viewer, desperately want Anuradha Chandra to defend herself, to justify her actions and to be exonerated.
We know something is wrong, right from the first episode that shows Bikram Chandra go about his daily routine nonchalantly, while keeping tabs on his wife obsessively. There is the obvious disconnect between his public image and his private life. When Anuradha retaliates, it almost seems like a validation of our deep suspicion that she is more a victim than the perpetrator of the crime.
We flinch at the treatment meted out to her by her depraved husband and her unsympathetic daughter who has been trained by her father to keep tabs on her mother, as Anuradha was supposedly mentally unstable. Father and daughter carry on their charade of "caring for and protecting" Anuradha, while she herself is sinking into an abyss of self-distrust and loathing. She is tight-lipped about her torture and subsequent act of rebellion, more out of deep-rooted shame and to shield her daughter from the repercussions of her act.
We almost despise the daughter who is so much in awe of her father that she can't see her mother's pain, and tries her best to get her punished. How can anyone be so blind, so insensitive, we wonder. But then we know, as we have witnessed similar stories of abuse in our neighbourhood, in our social circles, sometimes in our own families.
The series also puts a stark spotlight on the conditions of jails in our country, the filth and grime, stench and nausea-inducing suffocation. Criminals are also humans, we need to remind ourselves, innocent until proven guilty and not otherwise. There are sordid stories of abuse and suppression behind all the "cases" of prisoners languishing in hell-hole like jails. Shunned by their family and society, these inmates often turn on each other to get their share of one-upmanship.
As the courtroom drama plays out, and Anuradha is subjected to incessant probing and judging, the viewer definitely wants to know why she retaliated that night. But more than that, we want her to expose her sordid tale to the public, to tear off the veil of respectability and decency that shields her husband.
Enter the advocate and his associate lawyer (a reluctant participant initially) who are facing a wall of resistance from their own client. She doesn't speak, and they don't give up. And slowly, through the eight episodes of this tightly-knit socio-judicial drama, the truth is unveiled.
A lot of notions are demolished, many morals, social norms and values questioned, and a lot of introspection kindled. It is not a simple tale of vengeance or justice; it is a far murkier and complex case of denial and defence.
Kirti Kulhari puts in a heartfelt performance, dependably carrying the lead role on her able shoulders. Pankaj Tripathi as the out-of-luck advocate and Anupriya Goenka as his sympathetic colleague shine in their individual roles. Anupriya depicts the portrayal of the rookie advocate who is fighting patriarchy at home very well. Her transformation from reluctant spectator to involved crusader is convincing. The supporting actors are remarkable too, be it Deepti Naval, Adrija Sinha (stunning), Khushboo Atre or Mita Vashisht. Adrija is particularly impactful in her moving performance of the daughter in shock. We feel like enveloping her in a huge hug and saying it is going to be all right. Jisshu Sengupta is there in only the first episode, but the impact of his role is felt throughout the series.
With the advent of the OTT platforms, a lot of brushed-under-the-carpet topics are getting their due attention. And despite all the sensationalising and spicing up, most popular shows do have a grain of truth in them. As the audience, we must expect and demand quality content on issues that have been pushed away due to the public shame or ridicule attached to them. And shows like Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors are trying. That is commendable.