Director: Ajay Bahl
Cast: Akshaye Khanna, Richa Chadha, Meera Chopra, Rahul Bhat
In a post-Pink universe, you’d be naive to believe that a Hindi film director would fashion yet another mainstream courtroom drama prosecuting the politics of consent. In a post-MeToo universe, you’d be equally naive to believe that a male Hindi film director would fashion a mainstream drama persecuting the male Hindi film director as a serial sex offender. Couple this with writer Manish Gupta’s interviews about the ‘misuse of rape laws’ and it’s pretty clear why Ajay Bahl’s Section 375 exists. It’s to tell us that “No means no” is the new ‘due procedure’ of the law (and cultural discourse) – and that this isn’t always a good thing. For instance, within the first ten minutes, an arrogant Bollywood director named Rohan Khurana (Rahul Bhat) is arrested and sentenced by a Sessions Court after his young costume assistant, Anjali Dangle (Meera Chopra), accuses him of rape and assault. A famous criminal lawyer takes up his defense, appeals for a High Court hearing, and a chunk of the story unfolds as a relentless Rohan v/s The State case. The film already enters imaginary territory here – there’s no trial by reportage or social media, there’s straightaway a trial by law. If only.
I’m not sure what it says about our creative culture that, a year after #MeToo reached Indian shores, the first commercial movie acknowledging the epidemic of high-profile predators within the film industry chooses to address the ambiguity of the claims rather than the victimhood of the cases. But Section 375 is what it is. I may not agree with the overall purpose of the film, but it does an effective job of contextualizing the collateral damage – the “MenToo” fallout – without explicitly taking sides. In one sense, Section 375 is brave, foolhardy almost – like a wish-fulfillment exercise that examines the legal consequences of a survivor actually trusting the judiciary system and risking her life/career. In another sense, the film is instantly difficult, unlikeable even, because it dares to probe – and, at times, challenge – the mood of a newly woke nation. Most importantly, despite its misguided social standing, Section 375 has a conscience.
The film achieves a tricky balance between the demonisation of the survivor and the humanization of the perpetrator – without diluting the abuse-of-power narrative
Pink was criticized for its male-saviour syndrome: Amitabh Bachchan plays the righteous lawyer who saves a group of violated girls by educating a nation about consent. But Section 375 seems to be aware of the irony of a male lawyer trying to educate a system – and a country – about the red beneath the pink. Thankfully, this man is not portrayed as a sweaty underdog or model citizen; the gaze is still decidedly grey and…feminist. The wealthy protagonist, Tarun Saluja, channels the status and conscience of the film in many ways: Nobody in the court likes him, he is haughty and patronizing, he pisses everyone off at some point (including the judges), but he is the only one with a voice that can cut through the clutter. He is the only one – however privileged, and driven by publicity or money – who is willing to ask uncomfortable questions. Nothing is too sensitive for him. And he stakes his reputation on his cold devotion to logic.
The character is a classic courtroom villain (a cousin of, say, Boman Irani’s Jolly LLB persona), but the actor has the vibe of a know-it-all hero. Akshaye Khanna’s performance is important in how it suggests that the man knows his pompous personality is an extension of his role in the case. He isn’t supposed to be supported. He seems to be someone who is deliberately designing his immodest attitude to protect the film from deifying its anti-populist message. Some of his lines (“Is the rape of the mind as serious a crime as the rape of a body?”) – which mirrors the film’s thought bubbles – hit the mark, while his studied diction is built to annoy. His lopsided grin is important for how it places him as the man with factual ambitions, in comparison to Richa Chadha’s woman with noble intentions. You often feel that her character, Hiral Gandhi, is overcome by solidarity rather than sense. A direct companion to Chadda’s Hiral would be Vera Farmiga and Felicity Huffman’s roles as emotion-driven prosecutors in the Netflix series, When They See Us.
There are, however, a few inconsistencies. The actress, Meera Chopra, fails to alter an urban accent that is at odds with the socio-economic standing of the character. She is also a little too obvious – almost vixen-like – in the man’s version of the events. The incident is shot in a way that is visibly designed to accommodate different points of view from different narrators. The film only offers glimpses of the external hype (media coverage, protests, Tarun’s family) without fully committing to this dimension. Moreover, the canteen scenes between a sincere Chadda and a hammy Khanna – where he, the guru, speaks in metaphors to his ex-protege – are heavy handed. Rahul Bhat overdoes the man-in-crisis stereotype, but the casting helps to mess with the viewer’s perception of guilt.
What’s most notable is how Tarun sounds occasionally apologetic to the girl he is out to expose. His tone is interesting. His moral compass is not entirely compromised. Like the film, he knows that he is treading on dangerous territory, but his passion for the profession – and his heartbreak at the loopholes of the legal system – is apparent. He feels the need to remind us through grandstanding monologues that if Anjali has been wronged, her desire for revenge is correct (“my client is not a good man”) but her method is doing a disservice to the thousands of true victims. This is the film admitting that monsters exist, and maybe the law isn’t equipped to deal with them.
That it still achieves a tricky balance between the demonisation of the survivor and the humanization of the perpetrator – without diluting the abuse-of-power narrative – is a testament to the stubborn writing (monotonous, like a dull pain) of Section 375. “Justice is abstract,” Tarun sermonises at one point. Credit to the makers, then, for recognizing that a film made to deconstruct the notion of justice can be anything but abstract.