Director: Apoorv Singh Karki
Writer: Deepak Kingrani
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Vipin Sharma, Adrija, Jaihind Kumar, Durga Sharma, Ikhlaque Khan
An intense tussle between two opposing forces defines Apoorv Singh Karki’s courtroom drama, Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai. The film is ‘inspired by’ the high-profile conviction of Asaram Bapu, the self-styled godman who was charged and ultimately imprisoned for raping a minor at his ashram in 2013. Manoj Bajpayee plays P.C. Solanki, the spirited Rajasthani lawyer who secured justice for the girl with a clinically argued trial against the Goliaths of the Indian judicial system. As the protagonist and the hero, Solanki’s identity is retained in the inspired-by-true-events story while other names have been hastily dubbed over. Though anyone with a passing interest in the widely-publicized trial will detect the versions of real-world players like Ram Jethmalani, Subramanian Swamy and Salman Khursheed among others. Solanki is also up against the lawlessness of the system itself: Key prosecution witnesses are silenced, with two broad-daylight shootings, one acid attack, one hanging and one stabbing.
Yet, the intense tussle I speak of is the one between the movie and its lead actor. Bajpayee’s emphatic performance seems to be in a perpetual battle with the mediocrity of the filmmaking. Make no mistake, the great actor is the underdog here – up against the famously flimsy tropes of commercial courtroom storytelling. And we, as the viewers, become the judge presiding over this trial between the persuasive skills of a star and the loud defensive methods of the film. It’s not an unfamiliar war; artists like Bajpayee are so compelling that they are often required to punch down and compete with such stories rather than elevate them. The result is a head-on contest: He is all fact and fury, while the manipulative treatment of the film tries its best to defeat him.
Let’s take a closer look at both sides. In the red corner is a movie whose simplistic soap-opera aesthetic is an extension of director Apoorv Singh Karki’s previous work in over-packaged TVF shows like Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. (2022) and Aspirants (2021). The red flags begin with the brand-tagline-like title, followed by an unironic hip-hop anthem called ‘Yeh Hai Rab Ka Banda’ over the aggressive opening credits of Solanki’s exploits. We soon see the survivor, a 16-year-old girl named Nu Singh, lodging a complaint with her parents at a Delhi police station. The escalating background score suggests that these are the final seconds of a whodunit. They are not. This continues in scenes where two characters are speaking normally, too. Later on, sad strings play over a moment where Solanki has to fire his assistant to protect him from the dangers of the case. Sad strings reappear during the closing monologue, because can we understand what to feel if a film isn’t large-hearted and patronizing enough to tell us? Can we fathom the cultural significance of an event unless the music deafens us into submission?
Now that I’ve gotten my pet peeve out of the way, let’s move on to some other red flags. Never trust a movie in which a kid addresses his father as “buddy”. Solanki’s son is that smartalec here. He is slapped by his dad at one point, but unfortunately it’s not for calling him buddy. The trial goes on for five years, and while it’s a tall ask to expect a grandstanding script to express this passage of time with no intertitles, the least it could do is show that the son is capable of growing. But no, this detail is too tiny to bother with, because Solanki is busy being timeless and ageless. The boy doesn’t grow an inch. The flashbacks of the assault are shot like a poorly-produced college skit, and most of the supporting turns are consumed by the uneven tone and eagerness to milk a punchy legal thriller. I reached a point where the mere prospect of any physical or visual drama outside the courtroom started to make me nervous. The heritage-home-styled backdrop of Mehrangarh Fort on Solanki’s humble Jodhpur terrace – a space where he ponders in private – is another example of lazy staging.
In the blue corner, however, is an actor at the peak of his abilities, playing a character who seems different – and deeper – in his hands. Bajpayee adds his quirky Family-Man-esque tics to Solanki, especially in the way he reacts – speaking chaste Hindi in a thick Marwadi accent – to the more performative lawyers in court. In one instance, he tries to imitate the Jethmalani stand-in by banging his fists on the table to punctuate his point, but only hurts his fingers in the process. In another, he mumbles “gadha ka baccha” under his breath, referring to his son whose safety he gets paranoid about. From the manner he reacts to death threats and violence on the streets, Bajpayee manages to frame Solanki as more than just a heroic portrait of middle-class posturing. I like that there’s genuine fear in his eyes when a witness is stabbed in front of him, or when he notices a shady bike following him. His bravery emerges when he speaks in his own habitat, where facts become his refuge from the rashness of reality.
Perhaps the best aspect of Bajpayee’s role is that he lends fresh nuance to the characterization of Solanki. The writing deserves credit for not viewing the hero as a closet liberal, social rebel or urban misfit in his environment. That would have been too easy. It’s disarming to see that Solanki is very much a product of his setting. He is a religious and God-fearing Hindu man, an ardent Lord Shiva devotee who uses “Har Har Mahadev” as both a proud greeting and chant of strength. He cites a Ramayana story in his closing statement, and readily compares the survivor to Goddess Durga. He probably voted for the same right-wing government as the others around him, but that doesn’t discount him from the capacity to know better. His moral compass is strong, not because he’s a protagonist, but because Solanki is the sort of educated observer who has noticed how modern religion has been reduced to a medium of politics and power. It’s almost like he’s trying to reclaim the essence of “dharma” and mythology from those (like self-styled gurus) who’ve turned it into a vulgar business. In a conversation with Nu on his terrace, his remarks are perceptive. He tells her that, in the eyes of society, she is the criminal for shattering their illusion of God and purity. The hostility towards a victim is a projection of personal fear; she is only blamed for disturbing the equilibrium between superstition and living.
Of course Solanki spells all this out, because a Hindi film lawyer is a ready-made ‘advocate’ for truth and courage. But Bajpayee has this uncanny gift of turning the most basic exposition into an emotional weapon. As a result, Solanki’s outlook looks more pragmatic than progressive; it goes hand in hand with his balanced sense of faith. He is just being sensible, while protecting the part of himself that still believes in the integrity of religion. It’s not an easy role, particularly the bargaining between volume and sharpness. It’s not even in the top five of Manoj Bajpayee’s finest, but in terms of what he represents, it’s a valuable reminder of an India that’s too often lost in translation. Eventually, I’d say he defeats the film, subduing its shallow arguments and transcending its noise. He becomes the difference between a sinking ship and a shipwreck enclosure in a history museum. The former is a tragedy; the latter is a watchable story. The title is fitting after all: Sometimes, one man is really all it takes.