Pink may be a 'courtroom drama', but its take on the judiciary is hardly judicious
The Hindi film Pink (directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury) has created a buzz over its treatment of key gender issues through the mechanics of the courtroom scene.
The gender issues it raises are familiar and, in my judgment, impeccable in their correctness. One cannot but concur that the position of the working women in Indian society is an especially troublesome one and a sympathetic eye is evidently needed. Pink does this powerfully, and even causes discomfort in doing so. But what I find more interesting is its treatment of the law and the police and, in this regard, it takes its place with other films like Masaan (2015) and the Tamil film Visaranai (2015) — India’s official entry for the Oscars — which are also disparaging of the workings of Indian law enforcement.
Unlike Chaitaynya Tamhane’s excellent Court (2014) Pink does not attempt to give us a truthful picture of the legal process. As evidence, the film revolves around three girls accused in a false case of attempted murder and soliciting — when one of them defends herself against a would-be molester and injures him. The man is politically connected; he and his cronies try to intimidate the girls and the trial is where it eventually leads. What is significant, however, is not that the girls are acquitted after being put through trauma but that the men involved are also ‘found guilty’ — in the same trial — although they have not even been formally charged! Perhaps this short cut was necessary to provide the audience with emotional satisfaction, but my point here is that the film is better understood as a discursive exercise with a message, and questioning the story’s plausibility is futile. My interest here is therefore in the view the film takes of the police and the courtroom as emblems of state authority, and what its discourse is.
The place of the police in any national cinema is an important one because they are nominally the emblems of state authority. That is why their portrayal is usually a constant; i.e. while other things may be seen differently at different times, the authority of the nation-state is sacred in a national mythology. That this has little to do with what the state of affairs ‘actually is’ will be understood from the fact that the judiciary in a Hollywood film cannot be castigated although miscarriages of justice are often portrayed. There are prejudiced judges but they rise above their prejudices to eventually uphold the law. When a corrupt judge is shown he is often removed midway (The Rainmaker, 1997) to make way for someone more deserving of the position. Also, the number of African-American judges in Hollywood courtroom dramas far exceeds their incidence in real life, as if to show equality within/under the law. The treatment of the police is not different and admission of their prejudice (Crash, 2005) is accompanied by discourse that those who exhibit them can still be redeemed.
Mainstream Indian cinema began after 1947 to show great respects for the institutions of the law — i.e. the police and the judiciary. Surrendering in court or to the police (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958, Footpath, 1953) is an admission of moral guilt. In Parasakhti (1952), scripted by later DMK chief M Karunanidhi, the protagonist accuses all of organised society in court and all those leaders of society present on the occasion lower their gazes — as if in admission at the sacred site where the truth cannot be denied. It is not that all policemen were unflinchingly honest in the 1950s but that, as emblems of the moral authority of the independent nation-state, it was public sentiment that they be portrayed in this way.
But, as was proposed in an earlier essay (about the Bollywood historical film), mainstream cinema relays only ‘non-contextual’ truths, those which are not dependant on historical context for their validity. The relayed truths change constantly but each truth is treated as a universal. The sacred parent was a truth familiar from tradition relayed till the 1970s or 1980s (as in Deewar, 1975) but when children began to abandon family vocations in the global age, overcoming the impediments placed by the conservative parent upon the enterprising person became a ‘universal’ (Guru, 2007). The sanctity of the nation-state, similarly, was a non-contextual truth which gradually left cinema after the 1950s, when public experience with the Nehruvian state became less than satisfactory. Love of nation as an abstract sentiment nonetheless continued uninterrupted since, unlike the state, the public has no concrete ‘experience’ with the nation. The changing view of state authority therefore manifests itself as a series of ‘universals’ in portrayals of the police and judiciary. The contemporary sentiment with regard to the nation-state is represented by the portrayals of the law in Masaan, Visaranai and Pink.
The first film (perhaps) of the series to which these films belong may be taken to be Rang De Basanti (2006) which demonstrates that it shares the same dislike of politicians and law enforcement as Pink. Another aspect shared by the films is that both have significant bits of dialogues in English and it is evident that they are, chiefly, addressing an urban public which has a working knowledge of the English language. Both films are easily taken to be radical statements about state oppression but this merits deeper scrutiny. A clue may be found in the fact that his antipathy towards the state is also in other films targeting the same kind of audience, for instance sports films like Chak De India (2007) in which government awards/incentives are sneered at, even as market recognition is eulogised as through the signing advance in Iqbal (2005), which pulls the protagonist’s family out of debt.
In Rang De Basanti the silver lining for the protagonists is a private television channel bravely exposing state/ political machinations. It can be argued that a ‘radical statement’ directed against the state/government should look at the system in its totality but what these films all set out to do is to attack the state and the political class while remaining silent about other components of the system — notably private enterprise. In Pink, for instance, the villains belong to a politician’s family; but it is as easy to see a powerful businessperson (or even a Bollywood celebrity) subverting the ends of justice in the same way. The proposition here is that the class addressed by these films, being upwardly mobile and deeply implicated in the consumption-based economy, are naturally those with neo-liberal sympathies. Their antipathy towards the state and the political class has these specific associations. The ‘anti-state’ attitude of the class is, in other words, not that of the political left but of the economic right.
Pink, as readers may be aware, is a courtroom drama about three working girls, one of whom is forced to protect herself against a potential molester and cause him injury. The young man is politically connected and intimidates them in various ways, but eventually institutes police proceedings against them, as already indicated. A major part of the film takes place in the courtroom, a senior advocate Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan), who has left the profession because of psychiatric problems, defending them. In the process the film details various problems faced by single working women, having to defending their characters against malicious attack not being the least of them. The three women are a Christian from Meghalaya, a Muslim from Lucknow and a Hindu from Delhi and the film is evidently casting its net wide to make its discourse as broadly relevant as possible.
A courtroom scene in any film, Bollywood or Hollywood, is constructed according to certain conventions. Although the judge is the most important person in any courtroom, the key person in the scene is an advocate, and sometimes a witness. This is usually because the innocence or guilt to be established before the judge is already known to the audience and the drama rests in how the judge is made to decide correctly through evidence and argument.
The advocate is the key figure in the drama since he takes the narrative forward but the judge represents the law and must get due respect; he cannot be upstaged and it is only through appeals to him that the truth can be brought to the recognition of the law. Pink acknowledges the respect due to the law when it casts Dritiman Chatterjee, an actor with gravity, in the role of the judge but this judge is not shown to have much authority. Both advocates present little evidence; they embark on lengthy elaborations of opinion and only take sides, but the judge seems incapable of directing the proceedings.
This is not simply ineptitude on the part of the film and some of it is obviously deliberate. For instance, the judge takes no cognisance of Deepak Sehgal’s repeated ‘I object’ because the public prosecutor is out-shouting them. The cross-questioning by the prosecutor is also abusive rather than logical and Deepak Sehgal only responds with pro-women rhetoric. This is very different from earlier Hindi cinema with Dev Anand as lawyer (Paying Guest, 1957) in which the emphasis was on argument; there was a sense of something being uncovered by the judicial process, even if this sometimes bordered on the implausible.
Pink refrains from showing us ‘what actually happened’ but that does not mean that there is any ambiguity about the central event. From the very beginning the women bear the faces of victims and the men those of perpetrators, and there is little doubt that the women are only speaking the truth. This reliance on the personality of each actor goes for the respective advocates as well since neither of them presents conclusive evidence but relies on oratory, with Amitabh sonorously trouncing his adversary (Piyush Mishra). I find it especially curious that the three girls who have had a sympathetic landlord, whom the villains have tried to intimidate, do not insist on having him called as a witness to testify to their characters (and the intimidation he has faced). Instead, they are subjected to some gruelling interrogation by both advocates over their personal affairs — including their sex lives. This treatment of material evidence as peripheral — if not irrelevant — is significant because the key issue is no longer discovering the truth but who is the more persuasive of the two advocates. The use of Amitabh Bachchan is especially problematic here because of his iconic presence on Indian screens — on behalf of virtually every product; the gender issue dealt with arguably emerges as one more thing endorsed by the actor.
What Pink has done, essentially, is to disempower the courtroom as the site in which the truth can be laid bare, and actual innocence or guilt established. It has gone about doing this by privileging persuasion over argument backed by evidence. The distinction between the two is important because while argument depends only on reason and fact, and is therefore a reliable guide to the truth, persuasion is less fastidious. An instance of persuasion effectively pursued is by the advertising/publicity industry which places no restrictions on how its persuasive capacities may be employed. The fact that persuasion is occasionally in the service of the right causes (as in Pink) does not make it more reliable.
There is little doubt that the moral authority of the law has declined in India in the past decades but, as I have tried to demonstrate, Pink is not providing a critique of the law’s actual functioning (as Court was). What it is doing is to use the court as a pretext to examine a well-worn public issue and take a widely accepted side on it. The law is only incidental to its discourse but what is worrying is that it takes the weakness of state authority as a given, as though a strong state which should act as moral arbiter on social issues were not even necessary. Regardless of its actual functioning today, only the state can be fair and equitable but the notion is undermined when Amitabh Bachchan upstages the judge in Pink.
The writer is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)