Creator: Shefali Bhushan
Directors: Shefali Bhushan, Jayant Digambar Somalkar
Writers: Shefali Bhushan, Manav Bhushan, Deeksha Gujral, Jayant Digambar Somalkar
Cast: Shriya Pilgaonkar, Varun Mitra, Sugandha Garg, Namrata Sheth, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Benjamin Gilani, Satish Kaushik, Diksha Juneja, Pranay Pachauri
Editor: Navnita Sen
Cinematographer: Siddarth Srinivasan
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
India today is a cauldron of contradiction. Science and religion jostle for space. Corruption shares a bed with development. Love is a language of ego. Politics is a language of power. Gender is a marriage of identity and control. Scandal is the frenemy of justice. Tradition is suspicious of – but seduced by – technology. And the law is at loggerheads with the truth. In other words, India is everything, everywhere, all at once. It’s nearly impossible to distill the essence of the country down to one film, one story or one time. But Guilty Minds, a smart and focused ten-episode legal drama, comes the closest in recent memory.
On paper at least, the courtroom – where detail trumps opinion, where pragmatism trumps drama, where precise arguments trump armchair debates – is a fitting window into the soul of a nation. Every case is, after all, a study of modern duality: two sides, two ideologies, two sections, two lands and two truths. The lawyers who argue these cases, too, represent the tug of war between personal principle and professional integrity. Guilty Minds gets this duality – and more importantly, executes it well. It finds the balance between textural authenticity and human dynamics; between the specific and universal; between fact and fiction.
The sharply researched series is almost omniscient by design: It is to cultural conflict what Made In Heaven was to social fabric. The judicial system, like the wedding trade of MIH, is just a narrative medium. The story of two talented Delhi lawyers – an idealistic litigator named Kashaf Quaze (Shriya Pilgaonkar) and a flamboyant attorney named Deepak Rana (Varun Mitra) – is merely the lens through which we see a country in perpetual transition. For instance, at least four episodes are centered on technological disputes. In each, a senior judge struggles to fathom the new ways of the world. Their objectivity is at direct odds with their age. One rolls his eyes at Kashaf defending a teenager who kills under the influence of a violent video game. Another is fascinated with a music software that’s being sued for plagiarism by Bollywood composers. Another is skeptical about a driverless taxi that gets involved in a highway accident. A female judge scoffs at a female lawyer defending men defrauded by an AI-powered dating app. At least three episodes have gender bias weaved into their disputes: Judges can be seen cringing at terms (“Why say sperm and eggs?”) used in IVF clinic matters and high-profile rape cases.
The case-per-episode format is not unusual. But what it does is put Hindi cinema’s social-message genre into perspective. This isn’t as clear-cut as: ten social message dramas at the price of one. It is, by design, a single complex portrait that eschews the binary and moral judgment of the genre. The greyness of every situation, every character, is distinctly apparent. Every victory has an undercurrent of defeat. The victims of the system are not automatically flawless, and its villains are not inherently oppressive. The farmer injured in the driverless cab crash was crossing the highway to feed a cow: a superstition to cure his ailing child. The gallant city lawyers fighting a corrupt cola plant in a drought-infested region get a rude jolt when a villager yells at them for trying to take away their jobs. The family of a murdered driver wants justice, but they are also seen empathizing with the parents of the misguided teen who killed him. Kashaf’s colleague is a fine lawyer, but her friendship with Kashaf is affected by her ‘fluid’ ethics. A tech company CEO – who might have been a corporate shark in a film – is a bereaved man with genuine vision. The young inventor of the music algorithm is just an ambitious geek who wants to change the world.
The writing is nuanced, constantly living between the lines of conflict, at once deconstructing our flawed notions of humanity and society. Even the casting reveals this approach. For example, seeing a soft-spoken Sanjay Gurbaxani as the tech CEO promptly challenges our reading of the man’s character. The filmmaker accused of rape is played by Atul Kumar – a master of smugness on screen – who conveys the toxic relationship between authority and consent. Shakti Kapoor returns as an old-school and proud music composer, who refuses to settle with the creators of the music algorithm. Similarly, no lawyer in the series is defined by the side they take; they are shaped by ambition rather than stance. Deepak Rana mostly fights for powerful clients who can buy justice, yet at no point does this translate into him being a bad or overly shrewd person. He is Kashaf’s rival in court, but instead of losing respect for one another, the two manage to nurture an old friendship by virtue of being outsiders: he as a partner in a private family-owned firm, she as a self-made Muslim human rights lawyer despite being the daughter of a Supreme Court judge. The banter between them – her socialism, his centrism – comes as a fresh reminder that maybe, just maybe, it’s plausible to not cancel someone you disagree with. It’s a neat touch; the gang hangs out at a pub most nights, where a standup comic is heard riffing on trending controversies in the background.
As diverse as the case-per-episode format is, however, it’s the big-picture awareness that shapes Guilty Minds. The writing, at its core, suggests that the rot always starts at the top. It relies on the macro – the cases about power and politics – to influence the continuity of the character arcs. Deepak Rana, for example, is a different person after the sixth episode, which features his firm defending a shady Chambal-based security firm against an army widow. There’s a sense of gravitas about one long-running case in the backdrop of every episode – featuring an industrialist, a bigoted politician and an alleged murder – until it comes to the fore in the finale. The message is subtle but clear: it’s the government that’s embedded into the conscience of a country like ours, not vice versa. It is ubiquitous and still, while other conflicts revolve around it like buzzing planets.
The production design of the series is terrific – you can virtually hear the ceiling fans in the cramped district and sessions courtrooms
On that note, I like that Guilty Minds is frank enough to present a ruling party politician (Virendra Saxena) as someone who not only endorses a jingoistic movie called “Sacha Deshbhakt” (where the hero dives to catch the national flag), but also has a starring cameo in it. The industrialist (Satish Kaushik), too, is seen struggling to pronounce the surname of the Muslim chief justice. A veteran lawyer (an evergreen Kulbhushan Kharbanda) taunts the prosecution with familiar language: “There are some intellectuals who find conspiracy theories behind everything”. Again, the series does not shy away from showing even these more problematic people as fuller humans. The Kharbanda character, in particular, is shown to be affectionate and fair about his blue-eyed boy, Deepak, despite protests from his own family members. Deepak’s cocaine-snorting friend, whose father is the accused industrialist, is a typically crude North Indian brat – but he is also torn between being a dutiful son and a loyal friend.
It’s one thing to be intelligent; it’s another altogether to be engaging and accessible. The series succeeds on both fronts, because it gets the little things right. The opening credits, for one, are on par with Scam 1992, both in terms of visual aesthetic and earworm theme. The song itself has a cheeky Byomkesh-meets-Bombay-Velvet vibe. Not once did I skip this title sequence, finding new details and pleasures (and dance moves, unbeknownst to those in my house) in each of its ten runs. The performances, too, are perfectly in sync with the setting. Shriya Pilgaonkar is wonderfully stoic as Kashaf, a woman anchored by the burdens of honour and deep-rooted trauma; she turns her courtroom moments into a cathartic outlet as well as an escape. Varun Mitra employs a lilting, relaxed voice to great effect; he keeps us guessing about Deepak, a success story that refuses to be reduced to ruthless striving. I especially liked Sugandha Garg – who starred in director Shefali Bhushan’s underrated debut, Jugni – as Vandana, Kashaf’s hard-nosed friend and colleague. Vandana is queer, in a live-in relationship with her Bengali partner, but Garg doesn’t play her like a “type”. Even the way she smokes, for instance, suggests that it’s not a character trait (as most films imply) so much as a casual coping mechanism. She lights up when she feels like, in the middle of hot days and cold conversations, without inviting attention to the habit or her personality. The normalization of smoking was perhaps destined to happen in a series based on professional squabblers.
The character exposition, for a change, is not jarring. We learn that Deepak and Kashaf were in law school together only in the second episode, when he casually introduces his new trainee to them. We learn of his clerk-to-partner tale an episode later, organically, during a long drive – no voiceover, no awkward dialogue. The film-making does not condescend on the wealthy heiress in the story, Shubhangi Khanna (Namrata Sheth): a Harvard graduate with annoying South Delhi friends and a silver spoon in her mouth. She falls in love with Deepak, but her character is surprisingly mature about her privilege and ambitions.
The production design of the series is terrific – you can virtually hear the ceiling fans in the cramped district and sessions courtrooms, while the higher ones have a sense of space and curated prestige about them. Even something as minor as Deepak’s apartment is devised as a place that reflects the hustling integrity of its owner: he seems like the new-to-money kind, who might have just hired an interior designer to give his space a borrowed image. Then there is the language in court. Creator Shefali Bhushan reportedly comes from a family of lawyers, so it’s reassuring to hear attorneys sarcastically refer to each other as “my learned friend” and “mere kaabil dost” – a far cry from the “Milord!” staples most of us grew up on. Even some of the symbolism is framed well: When the Quaze family is discussing a possible conspiracy against them, we see their child aiming a (toy) gun at everyone in jest.
There are a few false notes – such as a prudish male mediator behaving like the “comic relief” in an IVF dispute. Or more notably, the final episode, which somewhat succumbs to the mainstream legal-drama template. It goes all Jolly LLB on us, using who else but a whistleblower to break the shackles of the plot. (Not to mention a reporter whose hands are not tied by her channel). I’ve nothing against primetime revelations, but this goes against the show’s painstakingly constructed tone. Yet, this is far from a deal breaker. Because it does interesting things with the concept of justice. And because, in some strange way, the series then becomes the very India it examines: full of contradiction and possibility, hook and crook at once. An India where a courtroom – and its crusaders – cannot exist in isolation. An India where a trial by public opinion trumps a trial by fire. And ultimately, an India of guilty minds and adjourned hearts.