From time immemorial, master storytellers have had an uncanny ability to foresee and forecast monumental happenings. That is why their tales not just manifest into reality but also change the future course and discourse of a society. From the vast fraternity of literary giants, the names of George Orwell and William Golding readily come to mind since their fictional narratives like “Animal Farm”, “1984” and “Lord of the Flies” foretold of despotic and democratic horrors much before “regimes of terror” were unleashed around the world!
Reel life is a reflection of real life on screen, yet it is a rare cinematic fiction that foreshadows the future. Ever since the astounding accusations against the Chief Justice of India, my mind is overwhelmed with scenes of the classic 1960 Hindi film Kanoon since they emit eerie echoes of similar decibels! To me, the metamorphosis of those fictional images into a near parallel reality today is a vital moment of introspection of our socio-political cauldron and though I have no intention to comment on the sensational allegations of sexual harassment against the topmost judge, I do wish to understand why Hindi films do not attribute negative shades to characters of judicial administrators?
Though a miniscule number of films have depicted personal dilemmas of judges, none except “Kanoon” has ever castigated their professional actions in the deliverance of justice. Unlike the US where films regularly mock, satirise, lampoon and criticise the workings of the president, secretary of state, attorney generals, army officers, bureaucrats as well as judicial officers with great disdain, it is surprising why our film scripts never analyse the professional conduct of judges in India. Despite numerous public allegations about corruption and misuse of power, it is perplexing why our film stories have neglected “cross examination” of the judicial improprieties of the administrators of courts.
If fictional shards of a film can induce dissection of a real life parallel six decades after its release, it has to be a brilliant creation and indeed Kanoon
was an enthralling court drama due to Akhtar Ul Iman’s insightful writing and Baldev Raj Chopra’s deft direction. Devoid of songs, it highlighted an accusation by a lawyer (Rajendra Kumar) upon the judge (Ashok Kumar) of being a murderer, etching in the process one of the most gripping yet explosive court scenes ever shown on a movie screen. Mesmerising audiences with its taut suspense, Kanoon
boldly sullied and sliced the judge’s character in view of his wager to plot a perfect murder!
But why is it that no film thereafter has been bold enough to depict the “vexatious knots” of legal functionaries? Is it the fear of punishment under the Contempt of Court Act?
According to avant-garde film director Sudhir Mishra, since "any act... by word, spoken or written” can be construed “as scandalizing or obstructing the administration of justice or lowering the authority of a court”, it is a huge deterrent for creative film makers.
Sudhir opines the draconian Act “makes film producers shy away from contentious subjects” since any gesture, speech or act can be interpreted as an insult of a court of law. And with the new found habit of fringe elements to haul people to courts, Sudhir feels a character portraying an unscrupulous administrator of law could render a film maker as a sitting duck and nobody wants to “lose peace and money if the law cannot save their skin”.
Would the courts be lenient to an exhibition of a judge’s professional impropriety on screen, I asked the highly respected former justice of the Rajasthan High Court Vinod Shankar Dave. A jovial man of great sagacity, Mr Dave frankly admitted that “the decision would entirely depend on the conscience and wisdom of the judge deciding the case.”
Ruing “plummeting levels of tolerance”, Mr Dave conceded film producers face an uphill task in combating the statute in view of the combustible environment of our polity. But in his considered opinion, a plausible storyline depicting a flawed judicial persona should not invite punishment if there was no malafide intention to lower faith in the justice system. Disclosing he had not punished anyone under the Act even when he was severely criticised by the media, the former judge advocated punishment for contempt only as the last resort and that too if “the majesty and dignity of the court had been trampled for selfish reasons”.
A strong votary of public criticism to build a vibrant and vigilant democracy, Mr Dave decried the fading ability of Indian luminaries to laugh at their own selves. With a throaty laughter at parting, he recommended Charles Ashman’s book “The Finest Judges Money Can Buy” which cites proven examples of America’s “judicial pollution” since there were similar parallels in India too!
Given the high prevalence of muddle headedness of Indian administrators as well as the timidity of censor boards, it is quite difficult to envisage a Hindi film in the near future about professional transgression by a legal practitioner.
Surprisingly, a day after my conversation with Mr Dave, the former Chief Justice of India RC Lahoti publicly lamented in Chandigarh that the greatest shortcoming in the justice delivery system was that those deserving to be appointed were not appointed at all while “several judges unfit for appointment were elevated as High Court judges”.
Couldn't this resounding statement about Indian system’s tolerance of judicial incompetence be used to script a new film? But will the courts allow universal exhibition of such preposterous shortcomings?