The sanctity of a courtroom is upheld by reduced theatrics. The sanctity of a courtroom drama is upheld by steely objectivity. For the longest time, Section 375 — a film about the contentious rape laws in India — fulfills both metrics. We get the slow reeling out of what appears, at first, an open-and-shut case. The performances are animated, but firmly bound in fact. The film builds up its dissonance towards a susceptible legal system, pointing out its cracks and fissures and gaping freeways. But then, just on the brink of completing that feeling, it switches back and self-detonates. Turns out, director Ajay Bahl was aiming for a plot twist — all while we thought he was aiming to spark a conversation.
A successful filmmaker (Rahul Bhat) is pulled out of his sets and convicted by a Mumbai sessions court. He has been accused of rape by a junior costume assistant (Meera Chopra). The law stands clear on the matter: the accused held a position of power over the victim, sexual intercourse has been established. Also, this is happening in mid-to-late 2018 — the peak of the Me Too Movement in India. When the case goes up for appeal in the High Court, criminal lawyer Tarun Saluja (Akshaye Khanna) steps up to the plate. Willingly, he goes skinning dipping in the hot waters of public outrage. Sure, he’s charging a lot for it and doesn’t seem to care about political correctness, but those couldn’t be his only reasons to jeopardize a steady career. What else, then?
In an earlier scene, we see the seasoned attorney addressing a class of law students. “Law is about facts,” he reminds them. “Justice is abstract.” Tarun, it becomes apparent, is addicted to arguing against the motion. His cynical self-positioning as a literal devil’s advocate makes him an engrossing character, but also an unreal one. He is constantly chewing away at the verity of the case, even getting his practicing license suspended at one point. As though to balance out Akshaye’s involved handling of the part, he is matched opposite a visibly zoned out Richa Chadha. As public prosecutor Hiral Mehta, Richa gets tragically outflanked in the courtroom, flaring up from time to time with an unheeded ‘objection’.
Section 375 is tethered to the complexities of the legal process, but is consumed more by what’s happening outside. Predictably, it paints social media platforms as the playpens of a certain polity. Tarun blames Facebook and Twitter for prematurely— and permanently — demonizing his client. In doing so, he ignores the fact that the man was already convicted by law, so whatever outrage that followed was legally validated. Moreover, the film’s playing up of recurrent #hangtherapist tweets is biased, and does not square with the million apologies that floated around for tainted men on Twitter.
In fact, as the politics of Section 375 gradually comes into view, it loses all claim on even-handedness. This is a film too smug about its own neutrality, using it as a front to sneak in a damaging conclusion. It’s certainly not the first film to rally against dubious sexual politics, and the legal and social ostracism that follow, but it does so with an impish broadbrushing of a victim’s trauma — a blatantly paperback move from a film that opens with documentary precision. Section 375 enters the courtroom as a mute spectator. By the final scene, it has assumed the Bench.
Film: Section 375
Cast: Akshaye Khanna, Richa Chadha, Rahul Bhat, Meera Chopra
Director: Ajay Bahl
Rating: 2 stars
(This story originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)