Tokyo Trial: Irrfan Khan is perfect as Justice Pal, the only Indian judge on a World War II panel

Abhishek Srivastava

Jun,08 2017 18:59 17 IST

If one were to ask how many of us have heard the name of Justice Pal, chances are that very few would answer in the affirmative. It is another entry from the long list of names in the records of Indian history which has now been conveniently forgotten. It takes books and documentaries to revive such revered figures; chances are Tokyo Trial might just do the trick for this name. Tokyo Trial, a mini-series from Netflix, is about a small but significant episode of international history after World War II. This particular episode is about an event and an Indian figure unknown to Indian public, but which played a pivotal role in defining the victor’s justice.

The four-part mini-series talks about a panel of judges (also known as the International Military Tribunal for The Far East) who were appointed by US Chief of Staff, General Douglas McArthur in 1946. These judges were to try the leaders associated with the Japanese empire on the charges of war crimes and fueling crimes of aggression. This panel, which comprised eminent judges from across the world, discussed and debated the charges and sentences for roughly 600 days. More commonly known as the Tokyo Trials, it had its foundation in the Nuremberg Trials.

Radhabinod Pal and Irrfan Khan as Radhabinod Pal in the mini-series. Image courtesy: CC

Radhabinod Pal and Irrfan Khan as Radhabinod Pal in the mini-series. Image courtesy: CC

On this panel of eleven judges was an Indian too (a late appointee), making this series a must-watch for all those who care about our country’s role in shaping global politics. Irrfan Khan, who essays the role of Justice Radhabinod Pal, looks eerily similar to him and plays him to perfection. Justice Pal was a judge at the Calcutta High Court, and there is not much mention of him in Indian history archives and textbooks when it comes to India’s participation in the World War II. The series throws light on Justice Pal, as he was the lone voice of dissent when the panel of judges was awarding verdicts. He harboured a diametrically opposite view when it came to awarding sentences related to crimes of aggression, and exonerated all those who were charged.

The series, brilliantly executed by Rob King and Pieter Verhoeff, is guaranteed to remind viewers of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men sans the aggression and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg. The eleven actors cast in the series perform their respective roles with perfection. Though the first episode shows only a cursory glance of Irrfan Khan, it is the second episode where the momentum picks up and the plot centers solely on his character after he becomes a dissenting voice. Though theatrical in nature and slow paced at times, this treatment of the subject is apt considering that the story was required to be told in such a manner.

It is apparent that after World War II, the allied powers were a lobby, which reflected in the creation of cliques as the proceedings continued during this long trial. In such an environment, full marks must be awarded to the makers of Tokyo Trial for being non-judgmental and not compromising the way they portrayed the representation of India and the Philippines.  Its also marks a subtle attempt by NHK, one of the producers, to reinforce the fact that the injustice meted out to Japan was a result of the label 'victor’s justice'.

In a very subtle way it also shows the racist and colonial mind set that prevailed during this phase, such as the fact that Irrfan Khan is made to stay at a hotel which is few notches lower in quality than the hotels where judges from Canada, England, France, The Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand are lodged. Irrfan Khan’s subtle remark about this, which he delivers with a smiling face, just wins you over.

The nonchalant posture that Irrfan adopts for this series is a commendable, and it sets him apart from rest of the judges. Irrfan Khan does full justice to the character of Justice Pal, who showed courage by telling the tribunal of his assessment based on the established legal framework. He told the panel that war is no good, point blank. He stayed put on his core argument that punishing Japanese military officials was an unequal balance of justice, as war and violence were waged by all nations, including the Allied Powers. In hindsight, it is difficult to think of any other actor who could have played this role like Irrfan did, sinking his teeth into the character and bringing Justice Pal alive onscreen for posterity.

Irrfan shines in the sequences that feature him and Justice Bert Roling together. Irrfan and Dutch actor Marcel Hensema translate the real life camaraderie on screen. The respect the two had for each other owing to their deep knowledge of the subject, as portrayed on screen, makes for excellent viewing. There is another sequence in the series when Justice Pal is asked about India’s independence by a fellow judge, and the way Irrfan tackles this question, with a tinge of confidence, is a clincher.

It is also heartening to know that after Justice Pal delivered his dissenting verdict, he became a hero in Japan and a memorial was erected in his honour.  The respect that he still enjoys in the country is evident from the fact that when ex-PM Shinzo Abe visited India in 2007, he made sure to meet his son.

But the real tragedy lies in this: despite being a world-class product, this series was hardly watched by people. Irrfan’s anger was apparent when in an interview to Mid-Day, he lamented about India's inability to weave together such a great story on a digital platform. He said, “They are neither passionate nor have the understanding of a good story. We will not be able to deliver a world-class web series since such projects are born purely from passion.” Judging by the stuff that’s currently being churned out, we couldn’t have agreed more.