As a generation that grew up hearing the iconic ‘Tareekh pe tareekh’ dialogue on the TV screens, it is safe to say that courtroom dramas form a major part of our film appetite. The more mainstream ones such as Damini (1993) have shaped our movie-watching experience, and come to constitute a major chunk of our celluloid memories growing up. While we associate the ideas of drama and justice on screen, these are the films that define a different kind of ‘cinematic justice’ for us.
The Indian courtroom drama is a genre that has come of age over the years. With the coming of modern critically acclaimed films like Pink, Jolly LLB and Shahid, it’s easy to mistake courtroom dramas for a recent phenomenon, but it clearly isn’t so. The following Indian films are testimony:
1. Court (2015) – Marathi
First-time director Chaitanya Tanmahe’s legal drama garnered acclaim in India and globally. The social satire was an instant hit with the critics, and went on to win an award for Best Feature Film at the 62nd National Film Awards among a total of 19 awards. This multi-lingual film was Tamhane’s attempt at investigating the ‘judicial nightmare’ within the Indian context. We can safely say, that out of all other courtroom dramas made in India, this Marathi language film tops the list fair and square. Exposing the loopholes of the judicial system, the film also shows how the process of silencing of an activist takes place in a country like ours. Without forcing its views upon the audience, the film embodies a unique approach towards the representation of the issues it takes upon.
Where to Watch: Netflix
2. Shaurya (2008)
Inspired by the Hindi play Court Martial by Swadesh Deepak, this film calls for a cerebral viewing experience. It is a concoction of the issue of the victimised Muslim as well as the Indianisation of A Few Good Men (1992). Featuring Kay Kay Menon, Rahul Bose, Deepak Dobriyal and Javed Jaffrey, the film relies on the shoulders of its stellar cast. The slice-of-life army film directly takes up a lot from its inspirations, the major themes and the courtroom battles are traceable and comparable. Director Samar Khan shows us the real internal dynamic, motivated by lust for power, biases and prejudice that goes on behind the perfect-looking lives of the men-in-olive. Exposing hypocrisies and taking an introspective look, the film is well made sociological study of a particular section of the society, which makes it worth a watch.
Where to Watch: Zee5
3. Pink (2016)
Based around the lives of three women living in South Delhi, the film makes for one of the finest courtroom dramas in Hindi cinema. When framed for a crime they haven’t committed, the women seek help from a lawyer who eventually allows them to clear their names. Shackled by patriarchy, it is a story of these women breaking free. Featuring Amitabh Bachchan, Taapsee Pannu, Kriti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang, Anniruddha Roy Chaudhury’s story was long due to be told. Written by Tanvi Ghazi, the poem ‘Tu khud ki khoj mein nikal‘ finds a place in the soundtrack of the film, and rightly so. As the film emboldens the voices of countless women, it also simultaneously breaks the narrow definitions of ‘the ideal woman.’
Where to Watch: Hotstar, Netflix
4. Jolly LLB (2013)
Written and directed by Subhash Kapoor, this film is an essential watch, smartly written and convincingly performed. Revealing on screen, the fallacies of the legal system openly, this film is a critical social commentary. Chasing his idol, Tejinder Rajpal, our protagonist Jolly discovers the dark underpinnings of the legal system in India, and chooses an alternate path. Although the film drags in the first half, it picks up pace in the second, and has plenty of dramatic moments to keep you invested in the narrative. You are sure to root for the inherent goodness in Jolly. Played by Arshad Warsi, his character is what drives the satire of the film. Although the role demanded more of drama and less of comedy, Warsi renders it with conviction and makes it his own.
Where to Watch: Hotstar
5. Mulk (2018)
The sheer authenticity with which this film portrays the nitty gritties that make up the diverse and resplendent Indian society is commendable. Set in Varanasi, the plot intermingles the Hindu-Muslim debate with a court-room drama style with effectiveness and ease. According to critic Devansh Sharma, Mulk ‘is to terrorism what Pink was to feminism’, We can’t disagree. Featuring Taapsee Pannu, Rishi Kapoor and Prateek Babbar in prominent roles, the film brings to the fore, the polarisation that exists in the society; one which ends up alienating the innocent belonging to a minority community. The stark realities that the film attempts to comment on make it contemporarily relevant to the times we are living in. Touching upon sensitive themes and subjects with utmost care and empathy, director Anubhav Sinha delivers a rather bold, realistic document of our times.
Where to Watch: Zee5
6. Dhananjoy (2017) – Bengali
Directed by Arindam Sil, the film revolves around the conviction of Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who was accused of the gruesome murder of Hetal Parekh in the year 1990. A sensitive issue is dealt with sensitivity in the film, and delivered well by the cast. Besides being a story that needed to be told, the film’s subject matter is essentially cinematic for it is a closer introspection into a microcosm of the arbitrarily subjective legal system of India.
It highlights the stark realities of the mechanisms in which legalities operate, crushing the poor and the hopeless, while elevating the rich and powerful. It will provoke you into thinking about the complexities of capital punishment in nuanced detail; and will make you feel for the protagonist while questioning the society. A riveting take on scapegoat-ism, it is a must watch for all you courtroom-drama lovers and argumentative Indians out there.
7. Shahid (2013)
With a brilliantly penned screenplay and a unique story structure, this film is an intellectually satiating experience. Shahid is a true-blood courtroom drama revolving around the fictionalised life of a real person and criminal lawyer Shahid Azmi. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s unrehearsed. Without shocking or surprising you as such, the film still delivers a complex story with candor and stylistic realism. Rajkummar Rao delivers well, his delightfully chaotic role as the man with many plans for the falsely framed Muslims. He adopts the body language and slithers into the persona of his character like a chameleon, making the effortful seem effortless. Hansal Mehta’s narrative style says a lot in less. Leaving the audience glued without too much drama, he aces the film and leaves a deep impact in the minds of the viewers.
Where to Watch: YouTube, SonyLiv
8. Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986)
This Basu Chatterjee directorial Hindi remake of Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957) is a courtroom drama in true right. Shot in one single room, the excellent camerawork of the film brings some of the action alive, making for an intriguing watch. It centers around a teenage boy from a slum who is on trial for killing his father. The film also comments on the varied subjectivities of the legal system, as one juror tries to influence the verdict with his personal prejudices and biases. Besides, it is clear from the start that nearly all of the jurors involved in the decision-making process of the case have some pre-conceived notions that they are not willing to break. One of the best adaptations, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla boasts technical finesse and compelling performances.
9. Kanoon (1960)
A remarkably gripping tale revolving around the subjective realities that define decisions of capital punishment, BR Chopra’s Kanoon essentially debates upon this very pertinent issue of claim to someone’s life, even if it is for the purpose of meting out justice to someone else. Starring Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, and Nanda, Kanoon proves to be a seething question upon the fixity, permanence and justness of a law. A well-choreographed interplay of emotions and realities, the film successfully created an in-between, an ambiguous space for itself, much like the forces of law it seeks to represent. By keeping it songless, the director ensures the seriousness of the film is kept intact. It won Chopra a National Award for Best Feature Film.
Watch Kanoon on Amazon Prime
10. Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962)
Revolving around a young, unmarried criminal lawyer who falls for a female convict, only to realise something else that has gone deeply wrong in her story, this film is a classic in the realm of courtroom dramas. In his pursuit of defending her and getting her exonerated, he digs out her entire background and discovers the truth behind the matter. At the end of the day, this black and white suspense-thriller starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman is a good mix of romance, emotions and drama, all stirred and consumed whole. Popular songs like Na Tum Hamen Jano and Akela Hoon Main Is Duniya Mein serve as icing on the cake. Despite its plotholes and predictability, the film is a riveting watch. It’s well crafted and relies on the strength of its social commentary.
11. No One Killed Jessica (2011)
Standing at the interjection of a thriller and a courtroom drama, this film is based on the Jessica Lal murder case. Featuring Vidya Balan, Rani Mukherjee and Zeeshan Ayyub in lead roles, the film follows the investigation of the murder, and how the eye witnesses keep backing off upon being bought by the perpetrator’s highly influential family with political backing. The vulnerability of a not-so-well-connected middle class Indian is shown with honesty in the film, which is of more importance than its well-knitted social commentary. Director Raj Kumar Gupta handles the themes, people involved in the case alongwith the presentation of the case with utmost care and sensitivity.
Where to Watch: Netflix
12. Oh My God! (2012)
Paresh Rawal owns this the film for his stellar performance. Oh My God! revolves around Kanji Lalji Mehta, who, despite being a devout atheist, sells idols of gods and goddesses in the ‘chor bazaar’ of Mumbai. Eventually, an earthquake devastates him, and he goes to court, filing a lawsuit against God. Remade from the Australian film The Man Who Sued God (2001), the film is filled with classic moments and iconic dialogues. There’s a scene where Paresh Rawal points, ‘Recession mein toh inka dhanda double ho jata hai!’. We can’t help but see the underlying irony of things. Fusing comedy with a courtroom drama, the film is an active satire on society; and how the duality of approach towards the ‘God’ figure plays out unjustly for people like Kanji Lalji Mehta.
Watch Oh My God! on Amazon
13. Aakrosh (1980)
Aakrosh follows the journey of an impoverished man belonging to a tribal community. He is falsely framed for killing his wife. All attempts to seek justice are in vain. Combining social drama with a conspiracy thriller, Govind Nihalani’s debut feature Aakrosh exhibits the several incompetencies of the oppressive state machinery. It was a subtle yet stinging commentary on the lawlessness prevalent in India. The film hasn’t lost its relevance even today. Such is the power of its narrative. Without providing any form of poetic or cinematic justice, the film calls a spade a spade. Written by Vijay Tendulkar, the film was a melting pot of the finest Indian talents. It brought together actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Amrish Puri on screen. One of the finest courtroom dramas in Indian cinema, and rather lesser known for its brilliance, Aakrosh is a must watch.
Watch Aakrosh on Amazon Prime
There we are! These are some of the best Bollywood courtroom dramas. Which are your favourites? What did we miss? Let’s talk in the comments below.
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