Film: "Dhananjoy"; Language: Bengali; Director: Arindam Sil; Cast: Anirban Bhattacharya, Mimi Chakraborty, Kaushik Sen and Arja Bannerjee; Rating: ****1/2
Don't the poor have the right to live? This question haunted me as I sat rivetted to the screen watching Arindam Sil's "Dhananjoy". The film, a masterly courtroom drama, probably the best depiction of court proceedings since B.R. Chopra's "Kanoon", that opens up old wounds which never healed, deftly recreates the mass hysteria in Kolkata after a watchman allegedly raped and murdered a school girl from a Gujarati business family in 1990.
In 2004, after 14 years of trying to prove his innocence, Dhananjoy finally went to his death, leaving innumerable unanswered questions about his guilt.
Now this film with a brilliantly probing screenplay, far more unambiguous in its faith in the innocence of the convicted than Meghna Gulzar's "Talvar", takes on the mission of Dhananjoy's defence headlong, and revisits the mass hysteria that eventuated in the accused's execution. We may or may not agree with the arguments that the persuasive screenplay offers in Dhananjoy's defence.
The scrupulously-narrated plot leaves us in no doubt that the circumstantial evidence that was put forward in the courts to put Dhananjoy to sleep, was far from conclusive.
Arindam Sil's passion to prove Dhanonjoy's innocence is admirable. He mocks at the harbingers of the legal system who effectively contribute to the miscarriage of justice. But the single-minded attempts to see Dhanonjoy's case to a defensive conclusion gets to be a little like trial-by-cinema (as opposed to the trial by media) where those who hastily declared Dhananjoy guilty seem to be on trial.
Arindam Sil's relentless pursuit of what he considers to be the truth sweeps us into its arc, creating a kind of compelling history-in-reverse to a case that serves as an illustration of legal arrogance.
The films looks fearsomely authentic, specially the scenes where the cornered cowering Dhananjoy is hosed out of his hiding hole by cops eager to win brownie points in the public eye. In the trial that follows, we see Dhananjoy restless in a cage like Om Puri in "Aakrosh".
Dhananjoy's village life is etched in sharp, vivid, sometimes exaggerated tones. But the saturated colours of abject poverty work well in a film where mass hysteria is the deciding factor. Soumik Haldar's cinematography is cautiously reckless, as though to communicate the hysteria of the moment without losing a grip over the conscience.
The actors playing Dhananjoy's rustic family rip our heart open with their anguish and anxiety. Veteran Paran Bandhopadhyay as Dhananjoy's father and Satyam Bhattacharya as his brother suffuse the frames with a desperate energy. It's the fidget we see in animals when they are about to be slaughtered. But it's the haunted eyes of Arjaa Banerjee as Dhanonjoy's wife that pierce our conscience with their probing poignancy.
Arjaa could have taken care of those plucked eyebrows and chicly stitched blouses before playing the desperate rural wife who has no choice but to believe in her husband's innocence. Nonetheless, she is very effective in showing the hunger and poverty, and not just related to food, though she does a fine job of showing that hunger as well in her scenes of socializing with the lawyers Kavya Sinha (Mimi Chakraborty) and mentor Shivraj Choudhary (Kaushik Sen).
Both Mimi and Kaushik play against each other with superb intuitiveness and remarkable restraint in the face of a mass hysteria. I'd like to see where the protege-mentor relationship goes after Dhananjoy's re-opened trial is over.
Director Arindam Sil constructs two different worlds. Kavya's world of sleek surfaces and azure swimming pools, jogs in the park and drinks on the house, and Dhananjoy's world of bleak hopelessness where the poor pay for sins that never knew they committed.
In spite of crude edges (the murdered girl's mother is played by Sudipta Chakraborty like a shrieking banshee from an Ekta Kapoor serial), the dramatic tension is maintained with a tight-fisted equanimity. There is room for hysteria, yes. But no room for tears of regret to be shed as the bustle of legalese sweeps the characters ahead. There is work to be done. Justice needs to be served piping-hot. The film does an admirable job of instilling a sense of guilt and dread in us at a time when mob lynchings and media trials are prevalent in our country.
What stays with us long after the film is Anirban Bhattacharya's performance as Dhananjoy. He plays the doomed character like a trapped animal with eyes that bleed their plea for compassion. On the morning when Dhananjoy is to be executed, he requests his sympathetic doctor to sing a Manna Dey song.
As the doctor sings on a harmonium, Dhananjoy's eyes convey a faraway look. This man has given up on the world. But the world must never give up on seeking justice for the wronged. This film serves up a warning for all those who believe a woman can never be wrong in a sex crime.
Sometimes, rape happens in ways that do not involve the sexual organs.
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