Rape laws in India are a labyrinth. In Section 375, Akshaye Khanna and Richa Chaddha play rival attorneys arguing a thorny case. A film director has raped a junior assistant, or has he? How fickle is the notion of justice in the court of public opinion? The victim is shown being probed for sickening details by the medical examiner. Is this allowed? The film’s provocative trailer raised several of these questions and more.
Akshaye says he was drawn to Section 375 for its even-handed treatment of the subject matter. “I was hooked by the writing (by Manish Gupta). Rarely do you come across a story of this nature that does not take sides. However, by choosing to not take a stand of its own, the film forces the viewer to take a side.” In the film, Akshaye plays a top-rated defense attorney hired to protect a high-paying client. He uses his rhetoric skills and legal wit to turn the case on its head, despite facing intense backlash in the public realm.
“Take, for instance, a widely derided figure like Nirav Modi,” ventures Akshaye by way of example. “He has already been tried, convicted and sentenced in our minds even though his case is yet to start. Now, suppose the country’s top lawyer decides to represent him. The person is naturally going to be decimated in public. Even his own family is going to turn on him. Yet, by rule of law, even Nirav Modi is still entitled to representation. That same applies to all criminals, even rapists.”
In recent years, Akshaye has essayed characters who lead complex professional lives. He played a detective in Ittefaq, a CBI officer in Mom, and political commentator and journalist Sanjaya Baru in The Accidental Prime Minister. The actor denies any conscious pattern behind his choice of roles. “For me, all my characters are different. I always pick roles that I feel I will enjoy doing and add value to. The gravitas and intellectualism associated with these parts are incidental. In fact, I am playing a lighter character in my next film, Sab Kushal Mangal, which is an out-and-out romantic comedy.”
Films dealing with sexual violence often invite social media dissection and outrage. Asked if he has similar apprehensions for Section 375, Akshaye responds, “One should always take these things with a pinch of salt. The majority of comments and opinions out there are of a frivolous nature. They do not come from a place of genuine concern. There’s too much information and little reconciliation.”
Last month, a petition was filed in a Pune Court over the trailer of Section 375. The complainant, an advocate, accused the makers of maligning the image of lawyers by misrepresenting court procedures. Akshaye (along with producers Kumar Mangal Pathak and Abhishek Mangal Pathak) were summoned to appear in court. Speaking about the case, Akshaye notes, “If someone has a disagreement with a film, my prayer to that individual would be to write an open letter or come out in the press. He has every right to put across their point of view. However, please don’t waste the court’s time. Our courts have tremendous backlog of millions of genuine cases that need resolution. A film is too small and inconsequential to distract the attention of our legal system.”
Director Ajay Bahl adds, “The petitioner has objected to a scene where a victim is being cross-examined. They have argued that such questions are never asked in an open-court. When you see the film, you’ll realize that the scene does not play out in an open courtroom. We have done sufficient research to portray legal proceedings accurately in the film. Unfortunately, not all of it can be retained in a 2-minute trailer.”
Ajay, who made his directorial debut with the 2012 erotic thriller B.A. Pass, says he wants to initiate a public discourse with Section 375. “I agree that Section 375 of the IPC is not a gender-neutral law. It’s difficult for a woman to rape a man. However, after the decriminalization of 377 and the broadening of the definition of rape in 2013, how can we say that man cannot rape another man or a woman cannot rape another woman? We must realize that these laws have evolved from the 1950s and will get better and more progressive with time.”
Section 375 releases on September 13, 2019. The film is produced by T-Series and Panorama Pictures.