Aakrosh (1980) by Govind Nihalani (whose first film it was, and who had won acclaim as Shyam Benegal’s photographer) is a sparsely told parable about the foundation of justice: should men follow the law at the expense of truth, or should they seek truth at the expense of the law? Here’s the story, told by rAjOo (firstname.lastname@example.org) at IMDB (many thanks to him!):
“After working with his mentor and Public Prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri) for many years, Advocate Bhaskar Kulkarni (Nasseruddin Shah) is assigned a legal aid case of Bhiku Lahanya (Om Puri), who is accused of brutally killing his wife, Nagi (Smita Patil) (1). Bhiku remains silent when asked to plead guilty or otherwise. Bhaskar's efforts to get him to subsequently confide in him prove in vain. Even when Bhaskar goes to talk to Lahanya's dad and sister, he is shunned. When he persists his window panes are broken, then one night he is attacked and knifed. He gets Police protection through the courts and persists with his questions - only to run into nothing but a wall of silence. Then he is contacted by a Social Worker who tells him what really happened. Before Bhaskar could do anything, the Social Worker goes missing, & Bhiku's dad passes away. When Bhiku is permitted to attend his funeral - this is where Bhiku will break his silence - a silence that will see him face another charge of cold-blooded murder!!”
We have to add to this summary the essential fact that Bhaskar is a brahmin, whereas Dushane is a “tribal” (or adivasi, believed to be the aboriginal ethnic minority of India), like Lahanya, whom he is commissioned to prosecute. Adivasis are not normally considered as a caste, but their inferiority is clear. Attorney Bhaskar too is assigned, but contrary to his mentor, he is at the beginning of his career, and has still ideals and his generosity equals his sense of justice. Another thing: the “social worker” mentioned above (played by Mahesh Elkunchwar) must be identified as belonging to the maoist Naxalites, activists who, during the 1960s and 1970s, were intent on educating and leading to revolt the illiterate adivasi.
Then we shouldn’t omit from this background information the social circle to whom Prosecutor Dushane belongs, and with whom he plays cards of afternoons. This is the elite of the little neighbourhood: Ganpat Rao, local member of the legislative assembly; Bhonsle, President of the District Committee; the well-established Dr Patil, and the Deputy Superintendant of Police. This enumeration is nice to do because Nihalani’s movie is a bandook targeted mainly at such social façades of respectability: these bridge-playing and cigar-smoking sarkari karmchari are in fact nothing more than corrupt and hypocritical criminals, who take advantage of their position to exploit their fellow human beings and earn witness-buying money to protect their comfort and divert the course of justice.
The prosecutor, brilliantly played by Amrish Puri, is a rather different case. He hobnobs with the cultivated circle, true, but as a tribal who has managed to rise to the level of the local landed gentry, he is blinded by his status, and refuses to admit that down deep, he is still an underdog. This is the meaning of his silence when he gets repetitive and anonymous insult phone calls. Whoever it is at the other end sees him, not as a respectable officer of justice, but as a member of this detestable tribe of adivasis, who cannot be trusted to “work properly, and are born useless”, as one dignified official declares. During one bridge game, the way Dusshane is mocked by his peers for failing to use the right strategy is a good sign of his efforts to reach (and remain at) their level, but is in fact subtly kept where he belongs. The subtext of the conversation which takes place after the game is revealing, too, because the losing Dusshane, rationalist as always, is arguing over his partner’s management of the tricks, but this one (the Doctor) points out to him “Don’t you need a support to continue your call?”, and Dusshane says: “At least I wouldn’t have lost in a vulnerable position then.” A clear comment of the balance of power played out in real life.
During the trial, Bhaskar comes to him several times, trying to sort out the muddle he’s in. There is a genuine affection between the two men, and a clear distinction between professional and personal levels. Dusshane encourages his pupil to fight him fairly in the courtroom, for example. He won’t begrudge him if he wins the case, but for him, there’s no doubt about Lahanya’s guilt. On the other hand, he too will fight for what he believes is the law: Bhaskar knows he will receive no encouragement based on humane considerations. Dusshane will be his opponent in court. Outside India, such staunch service of the truth and of the law, independent of personal ties, would be rare and commendable. But, as Bhaskar will realize, Dusshane is a victim of the very system he tries to uphold thanks to his strict loyalty to justice. And the worst is that he doesn’t see he is manipulated by those who know he is prejudiced. Until the end, he remains a tragically faithful soldier of a civil army that is corrupt and criminal.
For Dusshane, there can be nothing outside the rules of the law, and too bad for those who, innocent, cannot be proven so. Proving the case works for him as it should do for a scientist performing an experiment: a hypothesis cannot be accepted unless it has indisputable proof that must convince all observers. A sort of totalitarian rationalism is at work here. Because even if indeed for a scientist, proving is part of the truth-forming process, all real scientists know that the first rule of the validity of a theory is the acceptance by the community of specialists, who regard the proof as valid within the theoretical frame. The same scientists know (and the history of sciences shows only too well, alas) that certain so-called proofs are nothing but subjective or party-built constructions put forward to maintain a class interest or partisan stronghold.
Bhaskar learns that he must submit to this oppressive rule of proving his defence arguments, something that nobody but he (and Dusshane) care about. He knows that in human affairs, there are other realities than tangible proof which can influence a jury, and say the law. The law is in human hands, vulnerable to interpretation and power. But he is confronted to the likes of Ganpat Rao, who is above the laws, and Dusshane, who is under them. He also knows that even if he produced proper proof (which everybody makes sure he will not lay his hands on: even Lahanya is silenced), he would not necessarily win the day: the case could be won, but then he knows his life would be in danger. So we have the classic situation where the proof is not any longer a convincing chain of demonstrative arguments, but rests on the sacrifice of someone’s life, as far more precious than words. And yet, the honour of civilised humanity lies on the accepted use of reason and language, as opposed to that of force and intimidation
It is interesting to notice that the voice of the oppressed, the Naxalite “social worker”, who comes by night to tell him the truth about Lahanya, refuses to testify at the trial, but also tells Bhaskar it’s his job to find proof to defend Lahanya. He knows very well that Bhaskar, inexperienced as he is, has no access to any proof whatsoever: that’s why he comes to tell him what he knows. Yet he leaves Bhaskar alone with his proof-searching. Being alone is already daunting, but Bhaskar will also have to pay for being obstinate, and then proving Lahanya’s defence will be complicated by proving that he is harassed and attacked himself! (I don’t know if Nihalani was consciously referring to the Gospel: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”!)
What Bhaskar would have needed is less language as opposed to the sickening silence that he confronts everywhere (and which forms one of Aakrosh’s main narrative assets), but a language in which people would trust and believe in (for Christians, Jesus-Christ, precisely, is such a “Word” to believe in – cf. John 1). In fact, what people believe in, in the movie, is action and silence. Or rather, not silence, but hushing. Indeed, silence is a language, the language beyond words (cf. SL Bhansali’s Khamoshi).
What we have in Aakrosh – translated as “the cry of the wounded” – is a muteness, a disbelief in the powers of language to perform its tasks of truth setter and community builder. Crying (in the sense of screaming) is not properly human, but half beastly still. Hushing goes beyond lying: those in power do more than lie. They have understood that language is their enemy, that potentially it transmits the truth that could lead to their fall from power and self-satisfaction. And they have successfully instilled in other users of language the distrust that will help them reach their aim. Whereas in normal humanity, language means life, community and transmission, they have established a jungle of silence and death.
(There is one soothing fact about Lahanya’s silence: it is the one he displays with his wife, during their love-making. It’s swift, it’s only a memory, but it’s there, and it softens this otherwise dour movie. Note how, nevertheless, there is a sort of painful quality to that moment, perhaps, because of Lahanya’s present pain. We can add here, too, the tremendous use of Om Puri’s facial skin texture: to me it seemed like a silent scream of horror).
The end of the movie brings a twofold conclusion to this appalling situation: Lahanya’s reaction to his doomed fate is first dictated by what his tormentors have dictated: he kills for real this time. But by killing he somehow frees himself from the trap he was in: depriving the lustful landowners of their probable future prey, he hopes to punish them and protect her. In doing what he does, of course, he in fact punishes no one but himself his unfortunate tribe, because even Dusshane has his version ready: it is only an accident; but nevertheless, it is acting rather than submitting. Even if the curse repeats dramatically itself.
With Aakrosh Govind Nihalani has created a powerful weapon of denunciation, directed not only at the petty and despicable profiteers, but at a system which, under the name of democracy and freedom, satisfies itself with organising injustice. What is better? Following the Naxalites’ call for total revolution? Or like Bhaskar, try and do at least justice to one man? The first option needs historical circumstances that are rarely united: all revolutionary efforts have not succeeded, by a long shot. And their justification comes only after their success, anyhow. But sticking to the law, in the hope of righting individual situations, even if it seems futile at the scale of such a huge country, is that better? Focussing on individuals or small groups claims the advantage of realism, as opposed to the flimsy idealism of changing all of society. Yet, one can hear the criticism immediately: such action won’t reform a sick democracy, where the strength of parties can conspire with money interests to help maintain a system of injustice. It is clear that both actions are indispensable. The question as to whether violence is needed to achieve that goal is also part of the history of India.
(1) Our summarizer adds here “for disobeying him and refusing to have sex with other men”, but this is a misunderstanding of the film’s story. It is the opposite: Nagi is abused and killed by powerful landowners, and Lahanya is blackmailed into accepting guilt of her death on pain of having his family (father, sister and nephew) undergoing the same fate if he speaks. If he doesn’t, they are allowed work for his exploiters. Hence the Naxalite revolutionary attempts.