Ahead of Vakeel Saab, analysing why courtroom dramas have become a major draw in Telugu cinema
The power dynamics between the lawyers, where a more senior lawyer loses to a rookie, turns it into a David vs Goliath battle, compelling the audience to root for the underdog. The verdict itself becomes the hero's triumph.
In Jathi Ratnalu, written and directed by Anudeep KV, Jogipet Srikanth (Naveen Polishetty), and his friends, Shekhar (Priyadarshi) and Ravi (Rahul Ramakrishna), are wrongly accused of attempt to murder. Their lawyer, Chitti (Faria), who watches movies to learn how to argue in a court, does not know how to defend them. Finally, left with no other choice, Srikanth himself argues that how will the world, where people do not even remember their Wifi passwords, pay attention to their plight and believe that they are innocent.
Polishetty shocks the whole court with his earnest appeal, and it is a sequence so hilarious that for a moment you forget all about how dreary court trials truly are. It is the latest addition in Telugu cinema’s tryst with court and law, with many actors donning the lawyer’s coat and gown this year.
Earlier this year, Allari Naresh and Varalaxmi Sarathkumar-starrer Naandhi caught everyone’s attention with its subject based on Section 211 of Indian Penal Code, a first in Telugu cinema where it was explored in detail. Naresh is imprisoned for five years for a crime he never commits, and when he is released from jail with the help of Varalaxmi, who plays a lawyer, he drags the investigation officer to court for falsely charging him with murder. The story delves into statistics about how lakhs of people in Indian jails are under trial, and why many of them do not even get a chance to tell the court about what had happened.
Then, in Chandrasekhar Yeleti’s Check, Rakul Preet played Manasa, a lawyer, who has to save an innocent man from going to the gallows. In the beginning, Manasa is reluctant to take up the case because the accused, Aditya (Nithiin), is framed as a co-conspirator in terrorist activities. But once she gets to know him and how well he plays chess, she urges him to win laurels for the country so that the public opinion about him changes to a good extent. She tells him that is his last chance to get a Presidential pardon. The film also focuses on the aspect of how a change in public perception might give a new lease of life to people who are sentenced to death, and how being branded as a terrorist, even if one is truly innocent, is a stain that never fades away.
No matter how different the plots of these courtroom dramas are, there are some recurring patterns: an innocent person is falsely implicated in a case, the protagonist is always a defence lawyer, the judge is a meek spectator who is there just to announce the verdict. The reality is a lot different, right from the way courts function to how lawyers argue the cases. A case in point being that most criminal cases are fought in trial courts, which are often chaotic, and the course of the trial itself could change based on how the laws are interpreted by experienced lawyers.
The closer you look at how filmmakers interpret court trials, the more you understand why they are such a major draw for actors.
The power dynamics between the lawyers, where a more senior lawyer loses to a rookie, who is smart and quite methodical with research, turns it into a David vs Goliath battle, compelling the audience to root for the underdog. The accused is almost always portrayed as a meek, underprivileged person who has no means to prove their innocence owing to their meagre financial resources. As a result, films turn court trials into an exploration of injustice in society, where the rich and powerful seem to go scot-free.
This framework suits the storytelling techniques often used in films, where the protagonist is portrayed as a messiah who has to rekindle hope and give courage to innocent people. But more importantly, filmmakers often turn lawyers into pursuers of truth and justice for issues for which there are no simple answers. The argument in the end is a clarion call for collective action from society to herald change for the greater good.
India might have abolished jury trials in 1973, but films have effectively turned the viewers into members of the jury who are expected to side with the truth and the innocent, and the protagonist nudges you in the right direction.
One of the biggest Telugu films of the year, Vakeel Saab, is the remake of Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink, and it will see Pawan Kalyan don the role of a lawyer, which was played by Amitabh Bachchan in the original version. The film delves into sexual assault and harassment among many other issues faced by women, a subject which is quite timely and relevant. The increasing crimes against women, and their fight for agency and safety, has been addressed time and again in films, and Vakeel Saab is expected to give a bigger push to this rhetoric about women’s safety and freedom. That Kalyan himself is a politician in real life gives it a different spin where the lines between reality and cinema will get blurred.
Interestingly, some filmmakers are also drawing parallels between historic figures and present-day lawyers. Actor Satyadev’s upcoming film Thimmarasu is named after Mahamantri Timmarasu, the prime minister of Krishna Deva Raya, who was well-known for his intelligence. The protagonist in the film takes a leaf out of the latter’s book to solve a case to rescue an innocent man.
Buzz is that actor Gopichand will play a lawyer in director Maruthi’s next, Pakka Commercial, and Ravi Teja too is rumoured to be following the same route in an untitled film in Trinadh Rao Nakkina’s direction. While neither of the films is a full-fledged courtroom drama, there is no denying that Telugu cinema is finding plenty of inspiration in court cases and turning lawyers into heroes.
It all ties back to three guiding principles of law, judgment, and path of rightness (chattam, nyayam, dharmam). Because everyone wants to believe that when all hope is lost, at least the court will hold the culprits accountable and punish them. The verdict itself becomes the hero’s triumph.
Vakeel Saab releases in cinemas this Friday on 9 April.
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