A courtroom drama is a popular type of dramatic film which involves at least one trial and centers much of the emotion and tension within a court of law.

The two most astounding and memorable courtroom dramas on film I have watched are Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and B. R. Chopra’s Kanoon (1960.)

More recently, a very subdued film entitled Court (2014) directed by debutant Chaitanya Tamhane was not really a courtroom drama. There were no thrills or intrigue but the courtroom itself became the protagonist unfolding the irony of the injustice that sustains within the very room that is expected to meet out justice to the victim and punishment to the perpetrator.

Within these two polarities, one may safely place 420 IPC written and directed by Manish Gupta released on ZEE5 on December 17 which does not deal with murders and murderers but with a larger world of financial jugglery such as stealing, falsifying cheques, and unimaginable corruption amounting to hundreds of crores of rupees hauling in court a very simple, low-profile Bansi Keswani (Vinay Pathak) for crimes he claims he is innocent of.

Vasvani is a chartered accountant who manages the income tax profiles of the families of high-powered, corporate giants and government officers. He runs a small office with a small staff and lives with his wife and growing son. Within this ambience, no one knows why he is in deep debt, has fallen back on the EMIs on his flat and is going to be kicked out of his flat soon, he repeats every once in a while.

He is first trapped by the CBI for having hidden the cash stolen by Sandesh Bhonsle, Deputy Director of MMRDA, who is absconding with a massive stash of money. His family CA Vaswani, is suspected of being in collusion with him and of hiding all or much of the stolen stash somewhere. But Vasvani comes out of it unscathed as a thorough search of his flat, his documents and his past records reveal nothing untoward.

Before he can let out a breath of relief, three months later, he is arrested for forging three cheques of Rs.50 lakhs each he is accused of having stolen from his very rich builder client (Arif Zakaria). This slimy guy complains to the police and hires one of the most expensive and famous lawyers in town for the prosecution.

Since the family cannot hire an expensive lawyer, they fall back on a very junior and less expensive counsel for the defence in the name and style of Birbal Chaudhary (Rohan Vinod Mehra), a strapping, handsome young man who speaks English perhaps more impeccably than his status explains.

Birbal is pitted against Savak Jamshedji (Ranvir Shorey), a very well-known, veteran lawyer, who looks down with some disdain on his young and raw rival in the courtroom. It turns out that Jamshedji, a Parsee, is friendly with the judge of the present case, also a Parsee.

But Birbal Chaudhary is not to be underestimated. Not only is he an intelligent young man who knows his law thoroughly, but is also a master at manipulating incidents and faking proof. He spends money to extract information from a lady cop and pays heavy sums to a friend to hack into other people’s networks and to “create” evidence that does not exist. He is not cowed down even when his fake evidence is caught and does not lose his cool when he seems to have allowed the case to go beyond his control.

The twist comes too late which adds to the drama but turns it around so well that every scene thereafter takes you by surprise and suspense and fear. Vinay Pathak emerges as the master performer he has always been in these kinds of “ordinary-man-with-an extra-ordinary-mind” as Bansi Keswani.

He is matched by the layered performance of the forgotten Gul Panag who looks too jaded as the tired, confused and depressed wife Pooja Vaswani. If the son had to do a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance, one wonders why he is there at all. Trust Shorey to have a complete makeover for every role and his Jamshedji with his thick eyebrows, proud swagger, throaty voice is no surprise. Zakaria as the main villain is good too but is given little importance.

How a top honcho of a construction company can afford to be physically present at every court hearing is a mystery. Rohan Vinod Mehra as Birbal Chaudhary (he is the son of the late Vinod Mehra) draws attention both to the glamorous visuals he presents because of his bubbling youth and his ability to put on a wonderful performance of a budding lawyer ready to pay any price to rise to the top of his vocation – law.

Scenes of Birbal riding through the streets of Mumbai every now and then are fillers for the time-gaps that are repetitive and do not take the story forward. Birbal also plays on his charm on young women and sets an example of manipulation and manufacturing evidence which stands juxtaposed against the corruption case being tried in the very court he is fighting to defend someone he believes is an innocent victim. In other words, the film spells out that the law machinery is as corrupt as the cases it tries and decides on within which even an honest judge finds himself trapped within legal rules where questions of morality are rather blurred.

The director takes great care to maintain a dynamic pace not permitting the script to slow down at any point or the audience’s attention to waver and we enjoy the fast pace that never allows even the court scenes to drag beyond what is necessary.

The cinematography keeps shifting from the Mumbai outdoors to the indoors of the plush office of the builder, the grim, very middle-class flat of the Vaswanis and the practically structured courtroom minus glamorous frills. The editing keeps pace with the dynamism of the very active narrative, taking one by surprise at every turn, unwittingly (?) educating the mass audience about financial corruption at every level of life without sounding patronising or romanticising the subject at any point.

The end title cards explaining what happened afterwards appear to be a bit of whitewashing of the wrongdoers, tending to spoil all that went before. Fast-running video clips to fill the info gap in the end seem to be an afterthought.

To sum up, 420 PIL is a good film with some “ifs” and “buts.” But very good entertainment even without a single song or much music.