'Damini' to 'Trial by Fire': The Evolution of Courtroom Dramas in Bollywood

With the release of Trial by Fire, let's look at the evolution of courtroom dramas in Bollywood over the years.

5 min read
'Damini' to 'Trial by Fire': The Evolution of Courtroom Dramas in Bollywood

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Courtroom dramas are one of the most popular genres in Bollywood today. Netflix's latest release, Trial by Fire, based on the 1997 Uphaar Cinema tragedy, is the newest addition to the list.

From a generation that grew up hearing Sunny Deol's "Taareekh pe Taareekh" monologue to Amitabh Bachchan's subtle "No means no," we've come a long way today. But one thing that has remained constant is the wild popularity of this genre.

To find out what has significantly changed in the courtrooms of Bollywood over the years, let's proceed.


The Early Trendsetters

Bollywood has a long history of courtroom dramas. One of the first few films that established the genre in the Hindi-film industry belonged to the golden era, when the British bid their final adieu to India.

At the time, patriotic trials were pretty common in films, where court scenes would typically occur at the very end of the film. Most of which were prophesied by a short clip of the national slogan 'Satyamev Jayate' or the image of the 'Lady of Justice' holding a pair of weighing scales in her hand while donning a black bandage over her eyes.

A still from Shaheed.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Films like Dilip Kumar's Shaheed (1948), Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951), Mehboob Khan's Amar (1954), BR Chopra's Kanoon (1960), Dev Anand's Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962), Dharmendra's Pooja Ke Phool (1964), Sunil Dutt's Mera Saya (1966), and Ashok Kumar's Mamta (1966) were among the early trendsetters.

For the uninitiated, Awara, Pooja Ke Phool, and Mamta were among the first feature films to introduce a female advocate to Indian cinema, played by Nargis, Mala Singh, and Suchitra Sen, respectively.

Nargis in a still from Awara; Mala Singh in a still from Pooja Ke Phool.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

These films significantly changed the idea of justice for their viewers. No matter how tough the battle was, the truth always prevailed in the courtrooms of Bollywood.

In fact, the life seen on the silver screen is just as contradictory as real life. The justice meted out to the victims of the story in cinema also feels like the viewer's own. This is the reason why the audience watches such content with great interest.


Order! Order! Order! The Drama Is Here...

By the end of the golden era, courtroom dramas were already established as mainstream in Bollywood. However, the abundance of new scripts came with an influx of indigestible drama.

From thunderous courtroom discussions and Bhagvad Gita testimonies to witnesses having a complete breakdown on the dock, filmmakers created a very distorted impression of a courtroom for their viewers.

For instance, Tinnu Anand's 1968 classic Shahenshah, starring Amitabh Bachchan, will make you question a lot of things. In the film, Amitabh's character not only announces the verdict in place of the judge but also hangs the offender (played by Amrish Puri) in the court of law in front of hundreds of people.

Amitabh Bachchan swearing by the Bhagvad Gita in a still from his film.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

One of the most iconic courtroom dramas of the 1990s, Damini, starring Sunny Deol and Meenakshi Seshadri, also follows the 'good vs evil' narrative. Though the film tackles a progressive theme and has feminist undertones, it falls short of giving a fair representation of how the law actually functions.

There is only one thing that's common in both the courtrooms of Bollywood and the Indian Judiciary — Tareekh pe tareekh. Hence, many found resonance in Deol's dramatic monologue, which was an indictment of the infamous delays in the Indian judicial system; in other words, "justice delayed is justice denied."

Stills from Shahenshah and Damini.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Andha Kanoon (1983), Meri Jung (1985), Kyo Ki...Mai Jhooth Nahi Bolta (2001), Aitraaz, and Garv: Pride & Honour (2004) were among many other notable films that followed a similar courtroom climax.


Courtrooms of the New Age

The new-age courtroom dramas have progressed beyond the catastrophic flaws of the good vs evil narrative and are trying to take a sincere approach towards the genre, making law on screen as realistic as possible.

Now, judges are no longer escorted by their guards into palace-like courtrooms; gavels aren't beaten after every two dialogues; lawyers make rational arguments as opposed to emotive ones; and heroes and villains have lost their relevance in the court of law.

Films like Raj Kumar Gupta's No One Killed Jessica, Hansal Mehta's Shahid (2012), Amitabh Bachchan starrer Pink (2016), Anubhav Sinha's Mulk (2018), and Ajay Bahl's Section 375, are testimony to this.

Arshad Warsi in a still from Jolly LLB and Kareena Kapoor in a still from Aitraaz. 

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

The way in which the justice system and the police are portrayed in crime and courtroom dramas has a direct impact on how citizens perceive these institutions and contributes to a larger attempt to strengthen democracy and raise conscience.

As per a survey conducted by ORMAX Media in 2019, 53% of viewers of State Vs Jolly LLB 2 were more aware of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) than its non-viewers. Hence, it is safe to say that entertainment can serve as a powerful tool for legal education.


The Contribution of OTT

The introduction of OTT has played a significant role in the evolution of courtroom dramas. It has not only built opportunities for the creators but for the viewers as well, by creating a better viewing experience for them.

The episodic format of web series allows both characters and the plot to evolve over time, reflecting how actual cases unfold in courtrooms.

For instance, Netflix's latest courtroom drama, Trial by Fire, is based on the 1997 fire tragedy, in which 59 people were snuffed out by a blaze in Uphaar, one of the biggest cinema halls in Delhi.

Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande in the poster for Trial By Fire.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

Directed by Prashant Nair and Randeep Jha, the seven-episode series stars Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande as Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, respectively. The show follows their struggle to get justice for their children, whom they lost in the Uphaar tragedy.

Without getting into the theatrics of an exaggerated courtroom debate, each episode brilliantly portrays the reality of the judicial system and the enormous difficulties that ordinary citizens face in their everyday lives.


The courtrooms of Bollywood have so far succeeded in embracing a sound structure fueled by compelling narratives that hold the power to shape the opinion of their viewers and encourage questioning. After all, a responsible cinema can also build a responsive citizenry.

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