“I remember 15 August 2004. The photo on the first page of the Ananda Bazar Patrika was that of Dhananjoy’s feet, jutting out of the white cloth his body was covered in,” says Debashish Mukherjee. “I didn’t sleep the night before. Many people in Kolkata didn’t,” he said, as he walked out after the screening of Dhananjoy, the courtroom drama by Arindam Sil.
If nothing else, the film did what it was meant to do, which was to raise questions about the legality of Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s trial, subsequent conviction and hanging for the alleged murder and rape of 18-year-old schoolgirl Hetal Parekh.
Reopening the Case
The movie begins with Dhananjoy’s hanging. A lawyer, Kavya Sinha (played by Mimi Chakraborty) narrates the case to another senior lawyer, played by Kaushik Sen. Kavya, who met Dhananjoy’s wife Chanda through an NGO, four years after his death, wants to reopen his case. The film takes the viewers through the events of 5 March 1990, when Hetal was murdered and how Dhananjoy came to be a suspect in the case.
It dwells on Dhananjoy’s escape from Kolkata, his capture in Bankura and then his trial which lasted 14 years. It portrayed, with no shadow of doubt left to the viewer, that the circumstantial evidence presented against him was weak. Dhananjoy, essayed brilliantly by Anirban Bhattacharya, is the perfect amalgamation of confusion, fear and subsequent numbness towards a system that failed him. As the suave, gutsy lawyer, Mimi does justice to her part, balancing legal acumen with emotion throughout the movie.
Unlike Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, Sil does not show two sides of the outcome. From the beginning, the film proclaims Dhananjoy’s hanging as a travesty of justice. The first half of the film, where they recreate the actual trial (before Kavya reopens the case), highlights the disparity in the witness statements and the lack of cross-examination by Dhananjoy’s then lawyer (played by Mir). It also touches upon how Dhananjoy couldn’t afford a lawyer towards the end and how bad legal counsel ultimately led him to the noose.
Changing the Mass Media Narrative
In a way, Sil is trying to change and appropriate the media narrative around the Dhananjoy case. The film touches upon the fake news reports that made the rounds, as well as the mass hysteria surrounding the case. It also talks about how the then Chief Minister and his wife led a campaign to send Dhananjoy to the gallows.
Sil, in his faux reopening of the case, carefully sifts fact from fiction and tries to build a narrative in Dhananjoy’s favour. He cross-examines the witnesses as they should have been in the actual case.
The amount of research and precision in the legal arguments is really what makes the movie shine.
“When the case was in trial, I didn’t for a minute think that Dhananjoy might be innocent. Now that I’ve watched this movie, I’m re-examining facts and may be such a media trial shouldn’t have happened,” said Tapasi Mukherjee, who attended the screening.
The film wants to change the current media narrative to one where Dhananjoy wasn’t treated as a criminal even before he was named one. It also whole-heartedly tries to dismiss the rape argument by citing the fact that the post-mortem report did not explicitly mention rape.
In a scene from the climax, Mimi says that the media was reporting the minute-by-minute accounts of what Dhananjoy’s executioner was doing before the deed. But editors often forgot that Dhananjoy’s family must also have been reading those reports. Did no one stop to think what they were going through, she asks.
At the end of the film, the director urges the audience to draw their own conclusions about the case from the evidence the film presents.
The Courtroom Drama Now Faces Drama In The Courtroom
Despite being critically acclaimed, Dhananjoy has now been dragged to court after a writ petition was served at the Calcutta High Court.
This is the first time that a writ petition has been filed, asking the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to revoke the certification of a Bengali film. According to CBFC guidelines, a film’s certification can only be revoked following court orders.
The petitioner has argued that the film is in contempt of court and assassinates the character of a victim who is not alive to defend herself. This is in reference to the film insinuating that Hetal Parekh (named Hema Parekh in the movie) may have had consensual sex before she was killed and that her murder may have been a result of honour killing after her parents found out.
The petition also raises questions about the film’s disclaimer (as mandated by the CBFC) that the film is a work of fiction and not based on true events. How then does the film retain all the original dates in the Dhananjoy case? They also point out that the certificate was given by the erstwhile CBFC boss, Pahlaj Nihalani, in a hurry. They contend that a movie that engages in victim shaming should not be allowed for public viewing.
Is Posthumous Justice, Justice At All?
From the outset, the film focuses on seeking justice for Dhananjoy in a land that is focused on seeking justice for Hetal. Sil lawyers up for Dhananjoy, debunking every piece of evidence presented in the earlier case and attributing mis-matched accounts in Dhananjoy’s statements as bad lawyer advice and police torture.
Kolkata is now abuzz with talk about whether Dhananjoy was guilty at all. When he was hanged, 13 years ago, no one thought that such a narrative could ever exist. Sil’s film couldn’t get legal justice for Dhananjoy, but the doubt that it has created in the minds of people offers some redemption to Dhananjoy and his family.
Its compelling screenplay and tight, legally-sound storytelling, makes Dhananjoy must watch. On the flip side however, it is important to remember that Hetal’s family may be watching this film – a lot like how Dhananjoy’s family was bombarded with media coverage of his death. There are no winners here.
(#TalkingStalking: Have you ever been stalked? Share your experience with The Quint and inspire others to shatter the silence surrounding stalking. Send your stories to email@example.com or WhatsApp @ +919999008335.)