Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai might not be the movie to watch if you are looking for an authentic courtroom drama. It is also not fit for when you want a twisty investigative police procedural. However, this is a movie that more than scratches the surface on what happens when a victim of sexual assault seeks justice against a powerful man.
The lawyer representing the victim, Nu Singh, is advocate P.C. Solanki (played by Manoj Bajpayee) from Jodhpur. Solanki appears to have seen quite a few criminal trials in his almost 20 years of career practising in Rajasthan’s courts. He has probably secured bail for people charged with motley offences, maybe had a few wrongful cases quashed, or even had one or two convictions overturned based on technicalities of law.
As the title implies, the focus here is on Solanki and his attempts to fairly and fearlessly represent the victim-complainant, a minor who has been raped by a self-styled godman called ‘Baba’. He does not present himself as a champion of the weak or a social justice warrior, unlike Suriya’s character in Tamil language legal drama film Jai Bhim (2021). Solanki’s professional duty towards his client, who he is representing pro bono, trumps everything else.
Court case without the usual frills
The movie doesn’t concern itself with the complaint’s life beyond the court case, nor spends any time developing Baba’s character as the head of a religious cult, which holds political influence and has the money to spend on supposedly the best lawyers in the country.
Therefore, this is not a movie which delves into possible psychological effects of rape on a victim or the code of silence practiced within cults that allows such crimes to happen, even against minors.
What it does reasonably well, however, is to show the many pressures, persuasions, threats and dangers to which a victim of a sexual offence who seeks to have the perpetrator punished is subjected. Asking Nu to be courageous, Solanki explains that he has seen many buckle under pressure and reverse their statements in court.
Prosecution witnesses get stabbed, acid attacked and hanged. Solanki is followed on his scooter on the way to court. Pricey lawyers bearing resemblance to famous senior advocates are hired to browbeat Solanki, though they come off as pretentious. Attempts to bribe Solanki are made by Baba’s henchmen in an amusing scene. “What can we buy in Jodhpur with 20 crores?” Solanki shouts to his mother who lives with him. Half the city, she shouts back. “Do you want it?” Solanki asks. “Who is going to clean it?”, she quips.
Dilemma of a courtroom drama writer
Any filmmaker making an Indian courtroom drama has the dilemma: how to make banal courtroom hearings interesting? But this notion of legal proceedings as boring and deserving of dramatisation may itself be presumptuous. As the legal drama film Court (2014) shows, it is possible to keep the portrayal close to reality and technically correct, and still retain the viewers’ interest.
To its credit, Sirf… manages to not overly-dramatise court proceedings in the way it was done in Hindi crime drama film Damini (1993), from which the famous “Tareekh pe tareekh” dialogue comes, or in the Hindi courtroom black comedy drama films in the Jolly LLB duology, where proceedings were tried to be made funny.
The writer of this movie seems to have faced another dilemma: Should the courtroom scenes be written in technical Hindi, at the risk of alienating viewers with complicated translations of legal jargon; or should Hindi be mixed with English in a way that is understandable to viewers from all backgrounds? This film attempts the latter, but with mixed results. The scenes from the courtroom feel sloppily written and unnatural. In short, they do not flow well.
Take, for example, a scene where it is being discussed whether charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act are made out. Solanki ends his argument by saying, “Victim Nu poori tarah se minor hai.” (The victim, Nu, is minor in every way). Can a person also be somewhat of a minor?
Judges, in general, have not been given much to say in the movie. There is no real dialogue between the Bar and the Bench, and judges act merely as enforcers of court discipline. They never ask questions, shoot down a bad or invalid argument, stop an advocate from wasting the court’s time, dictate orders to the court stenographer or give reasons for their decisions.
Bail is denied to Baba by the sessions court, the Rajasthan High Court and the Supreme Court, but no reason is ever given. As soon as arguments conclude, judges stamp out ‘BAIL DENIED’ in red letters and the hearing ends.
In actual bail proceedings, after the prosecution and defendants are heard, the court reserves its verdict. The decision to grant bail or not is typically disclosed some days later, with a reasoned order. The film has no time for all this, it appears.
The provisions under which Baba is charged are read out in court, but there are no captions about what those provisions relate to, leaving viewers without a law degree puzzled. The section numbers themselves are read wrongly by the Sessions Court judge. “Section 376/2F” (of the Indian Penal Code, relating to rape), he reads, which is meant to be read as ‘Section 376(2)(f)’ (Section 376 sub-section 2 clause f).
It also not the movie to better understand the long-drawn nature of criminal trials in India, though the trial here continues for five years (without Solanki or his son ageing). Court and Hindi art film Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984) portrayed that aspect better.
What this movie masters is the depiction of a lawyer trying the best he can to fairly represent his client against long odds.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most important lesson here is: before writing a courtroom drama, consider visiting your local court.