“Section 375.”… A well-made courtroom drama that careens provocatively between #MeToo and #MenToo

Posted on October 8, 2019

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This is really Akshaye Khanna’s movie. He appears to have lost some weight. He looks taut and wiry, and you’d use the same words to describe his performance.

Spoilers ahead…

Anjali Dangle (Meera Chopra) comes from a Marathi-speaking family, and from a very middle-class neighbourhood. She’s a junior costume designer, and she’s working in a film directed by Rohan Khurana (Rahul Bhat). You might say he’s from a Hindi- or Punjabi-speaking family, but even at home, the spoken language – except with the domestic help – is English. And his house is one of those apartments right out of Architecture Digest. The power equations are laid out right at the beginning of Ajay Bahl’s Section 375 (also known as Section 375: Marzi Ya Zabardasti). As the director, as an upper-class English-speaker, Rahul is – culturally, societally, perceptually – way above Anjali. But is he, as she claims, a rapist? That’s the question at the heart of this narrative that careens provocatively between #MeToo and #MenToo.

The story is set in 2008, and it’s a competently staged courtroom drama. There’s all that what really happened? suspense, gradually revealed to us. There’s the spirited sparring – tainted evidence! unreliable witnesses! – between Rohan’s lawyer Tarun Saluja (Akshaye Khanna) and public prosecutor Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chadda, chomping down on a meaty role with relish). Those who felt annoyed about Pink because it had a “male saviour” can breathe easy now; it’s a woman defending a woman, plus she is famous for her work on women’s rights. Tarun is a veteran, a big shot who handles big-money clients. Hiral worked under him, and this is her first big case. But the times we are in make Section 375 more than just another David vs Goliath tale.

Rohan claims he is innocent of rape, but even if Anjali is lying, we know something happened and it wasn’t easy for her. Take the physical examination after the incident is reported. With Rohan, we just see a couple of shots of him without his shirt on. Anjali is fully clothed throughout the examination, but it appears that she’s the one being stripped naked. What was the position? Assault ke baad urine pass kiya, stool pass kiya? Penis se penetration hua tha? Just listening to this line of questioning makes you queasy, and we want to be on her side just because she endured this humiliating examination. A few quick talking-head shots establish that we aren’t alone. The media court has decided Rohan is guilty. The people’s court has decided Rohan is guilty. The audience court in my theatre, too. When bail was denied for Rohan, quite a few people clapped.

You see why Tarun’s wife (Sandhya Mridul) advises him that “is mahaul mein” it’s not right for him to defend Rohan. Someone could say “is mahaul mein” it’s not right for the director to bring out such a film, either. But Section 375 is a surprisingly equitable film. There are two judges, a man (Kishor Kadam) and a woman (Kruttika Desai). They won’t let Hiral play the victim card, but they punish Tarun, too, for his Perry Mason tricks. (His license is revoked.) Even the win doesn’t feel like a win. It also feels like something has been lost. This is the first movie that voices this question: Can any man accused of rape really walk free? Isn’t his life (as he knew it) over right then, right there? Section 375 is going to infuriate a lot of people. It’s also going to make a lot of people think.

Rahul Bhat has a reptilian coolness that makes it easy to believe Rohan is not a good person, but when you see him behind bars, the actor brings out shades of vulnerability that make you wonder, But what if…! But this is really Akshaye Khanna’s movie. He appears to have lost some weight. He looks taut and wiry, and you’d use the same words to describe his performance. It’s a hell of a role (Manish Gupta is the screenwriter), and it resonated with me a lot because I believe in a lot of the things Tarun believes in – say, justice is abstract, whereas law is about provable facts. I found myself watching Section 375 with a knotty stomach, because something told me the case wasn’t as easy as it sounded. I wanted justice to be done to Anjali and to Rohan. Now, that’s a feeling I’ve rarely experienced while watching a courtroom drama.

Copyright ©2019 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi