Director: Sumit Purohit
Writers: Kanishka, Suyash Barve
Cast: Abhishek Banerjee, Bhamini Oza Gandhi, Lovleen Mishra
Vakeel Babu stars Abhishek Banerjee as Shiraz Hassan, a small-time advocate armed with his own Youtube channel. He swears by the modern art of self-promotion. So the image of his channel is carefully curated. A majority of his content is designed to attract a specific social demographic: He has positioned himself as a digital guru – called Vakeel Babu – on the “trending topic” of domestic violence. Playing the gender empowerment game, according to Shiraz, is the fastest route to fame. He already has nearly 50,000 subscribers. His (male) colleagues tease him for using his online avatar as a front to meet girls. His mother (Lovleen Mishra), an old-school lawyer, doesn’t understand this aggressive new language of marketing. “In our time,” she remarks, “a good lawyer was one who got justice for their client”.
When a potential client requests Shiraz to lower his fee, he agrees to fight her case for free in exchange for a video testimonial. The film’s central conflict emerges when, prompted by his slick videos, a woman (Bhamini Oza Gandhi) from an influential family calls him for legal help. She wants out of an abusive marriage, but the presence of a child has her fretting for their future. Suddenly, everything a woke Vakeel Babu preached must now be practiced by a reluctant Shiraz. He’s worried because this is a case that could end his career. His ambition. His reputation. His everything. Naturally, the story aims to reach the stage where he recognises that some things are bigger than him.
The good thing about this 22-minute short is that, on the face of it, the philosophy of the premise can apply to a protagonist from any professional field. Shiraz could have been a filmmaker in the business of vacant patriotic dramas. He could be a politician known for his cool rallies and speeches. He could be a start-up vocal about equal pay and diversity on the outside only to sweep its own history of exploitation under the rug. He could be a journalist with a penchant for selfies with celebrities. He could be a digitally savvy activist who shies away from real-world disputes. He could even be a student who’s too busy being an Instagram influencer to get a real education. The gist is that an entire generation mistakes visibility and virtue signaling as a sign of competence. As someone who subscribes to the Stone Age method of letting your work do the talking, I found myself looking at Shiraz disapprovingly, just like his wise mother does.
But Shiraz Hassan being a lawyer is not incidental. Lawyers, more than most, are required to be dispassionate by definition: Facts over feelings, justice over truth, logic over ideology. Emotional investment is considered a sign of weakness. Therefore, Shiraz’s commodification of an issue like domestic violence is but an extension of how he’s trained to think. In his head, he isn’t being dishonest or performative so much as resourceful. There’s also the juxtaposition of themes. The idea of a video channel is at odds with the stifled anonymity of his clients’ existence. The anatomy of abuse is the opposite of what the internet – as well as the law – stands for: silent, suppressed, private. He is broadcasting technical solutions to a problem whose symptoms are often concealed. And he’s deriving social currency from an issue that erases the very concept of social identity.
The film doesn’t overplay its protagonist’s arc either. His transformation isn’t triggered by something dramatic; it is barely detectable, almost inevitable, reflecting the condition of the survivors that seek him. Little touches – like a fleeting shot of his framed license intercut with the shot of his snazzy Youtube channel, or the image of his mother’s nameplate on the door – go a long way. One can argue that the dialogue is too straightforward, or that the film perhaps lacks a sense of visual sophistication. But Abhishek Banerjee, much like the makers, seems to understand that it’s not his show to steal. His is a simple and subdued turn: One that allows us to imagine the pressing narrative of the woman who actually ‘changes’ him. The film suggests, rightfully, that she never set out to do that. She isn’t there for his enlightenment. His story is what we see, but it’s hers that’s eventually told.