Section 375 review: Upholds the law of the land but justice…

Director Ajay Bahl’s gripping courtroom drama throws up the right, logical discussion pertaining to a rape case

Rating: 4/5

By Mayur Lookhar

Akshaye Khanna (l) and Richa Chadha (r) in Section 375.

The barbaric 2012 Delhi gang rape triggered a nationwide anger. Citizens demanded quick justice and nothing but death penalty for the culprits.  Sexual crimes, especially against women and children though continue unabated.   

India is the rape capital of the world, there is a rape every 20 minutes. We’ve heard this countless times.  [Statistically speaking, that’s not true but top or not, no country would like to be in the list of countries with highest number of rapes].   However, public prosecutor Hiral Gandhi [Richa Chadha] cannot be faulted for beginning her arguments by throwing up the ignominious perceived image of the country, its poor conviction rate in rape cases.

Gandhi is quickly corrected by the criminal defense lawyer Tarun Saluja [Akshaye Khanna].  The argument here though is not about the stats but the Mumbai High Court is hearing a high profile rape case.  Popular filmmaker Rahul Khurana [Rahul Bhat] is accused of raping junior costume assistant Anjali Vasudev Dangle [Meera Chopra].  Khurana has moved the Bombay High Court challenging the conviction and 10-year jail sentence handed out by the Sessions Court.

Section 375 is not so much about unraveling the truth, but director Ajay Bahl succeeds in raising the right, logical discussion pertaining to a rape case.  There’s no unnecessary melodrama. Gandhi and Saluja build their case on logic, potentially conclusive evidence to corroborate their respective stand.  This civility, logical thinking brings a sense of realism to the film.

Saluja and Gandhi are not enemies. We’ve seen enough of poor courtroom dramas where the heroic lawyer swears at, and even assaults the corrupt criminal defense lawyer.   Anubhav Sinha brought professionalism in legal battles on celluloid with Mulk [2018].  That film saw an accused facing terror charges, Section 375 pertains to a more complex crime – rape.

What makes it complex is when a rape case involves people who have worked together.  Cases of alleged sexual assault in the film industry naturally attract more attention.   Each time a big celebrated name was called out in the #MeToo movement, each time it furthered the popular belief that the people with authority in Indian cinema sexually exploit artistes/crew.  What’s the absolute truth? Barring one or two cases, the rest fall in the ambit of conjecture.

Bahl’s Section 375 is not an open and shut case. The meticulous defense throws up different possibilities leaving the audience in a limbo – is Khurana guilty? Is this a #MeToo or a #MenToo case? Screenwriter Manish Gupta has a simple story but it’s the gripping screenplay [Bahl credited for additional screenplay] that drives Section 375.

Bahl and Gupta question the efficiency, competency of police in handling such cases.  It’s a delight though to find Marathi language spoken in the court proceedings. For over a century, Hindi films have often lost sight of the fact that in Maharashtra, majority of the cases are heard in Marathi.  It’s here that Justice Madgaonkar [Kishor Kadam] and Police Sub Inspector Milind Kalse stay true to their roots. Madgaonkar has a sense of humour, too, but he never goes overboard with it.

Apart from the police, Bahl’s subtly poses tough questions to media, social media that often loses objectivity in such cases.  Barring the Nirbhaya and Kathua rape case, the public outrage has seldom been seen in other cases. #MeToo cases involving celebrities create more stir on social media than on the roads. The Anjali Dangle rape case is also sensationalised but Bahl has his creative reasons to do so.

There is not a single moment where the film drags. That’s down due to it’s fine writing and matured performance by the cast that keeps you on the edge. Akshaye Khanna leads the way with a confident, intelligent show. Saluja’s no manipulative monster. More than justice, he’s a great believer in hard facts. Justice is to be meted out by the judges. For Saluja, it’s simple – every accused has a constitutional right to get legal aid.

  “We’re not in the business of justice, we are in the business of law,” affirms Saluja.  Even an absolute truth can be subject to conjecture. However, it would be wise to place one’s faith in a man who is in the business of law than justice. When justice becomes business, then it’s a failure of the judicial system.  No matter whatever the provocation, temptation a strong judiciary is one that upholds the law.  Tarun Saluja is a rare and wise phenomenon in Indian courtroom dramas. Khanna helps Saluja gain respect.

Hiral Gandhi, too, places importance on facts, but upholds idealism on part with law. Being a woman, it’s hard not to uphold idealism when dealing with heinous crimes such as rape. It’s the difference of opinion which led Gandhi to leave her mentor [Saluja].  Time and again, Chadha builds her case on the all-important principle of sex without consent is rape.

This writer was a little skeptical seeing Richa Chadha don the lawyer’s cape.  Throughout the case, Chadha appears a little nervy. But then it is her first high profile case. Besides, squaring up against your mentor is always a daunting task.  This anxiety, nervousness can be put to the above. The Gangs of Wasseypur [2012] actress is not known to be eloquent in English, but the actress breaks that myth here.  Also, both Chadha and Khanna have read their law books well.

All throughout the court proceedings, Meera Chopra sports a poker face. She doesn’t look traumatised but Chopra’s largely stoic expression doesn’t give any inkling as to what is going through in the girl’s mind.  Is she a victim? Or is she a con artist? You’re left wondering till the end. The reference to Dangle’s background also subtly touches upon the caste angle. Having struggled in her short career so far, Chopra finally makes a noteworthy impression.

The neat writing, taut screenplay and the fine acting means there’s never a dull moment in Section 375. You do have to question Khurana’s wife Kainaz [Sree Swara] walking off from the court in the middle of the proceedings with the judges (played by Kadam and Kruttika Desai) not reprimanding her. Also, the examining medical officer is very insensitive while examining Anjali. The tone, manner and the language should have been kept in check.

Bahl’s first film B. A Pass [2012] was a dark, hard hitting tale that dealt with the subject of a poor man making tough choices.  The tough choices are part of Section 375, too, but Bahl observes sensitivity in dealing with a subject like rape.  It’s his practical and sensitive approach that makes Section 375 hard to miss.  Your reviewer is still divided over whether justice was done, but the judges in Section 375 certainly uphold the law.

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