Is there a tension between actual legal practices in the “real world” and its portrayal in Indian cinema? The two questions that concern us are (a) whether cinematic practices and imperatives create a ‘reel world’ view of the law or (b) whether there are some films that replicate the real world of the court system in and through cinema. In other words, the question is to try and discover how close or distant are the celluloid representations of litigants in the court system to the real world of litigants and courts as observed and experienced in real life situations.

Section 375 draws out the sharp differences between the law and the judiciary. This is brought forth by the renowned defence lawyer Tarun Saluja (Akshaye Khanna) who says, “We are not in the business of justice, we are in the business of law” reducing at one stroke, the entire judicial machinery to a “business” where the services of the judges concerned are bought and sold by and to the person who can offer the highest bid. Whether he was making a statement of fact or whether he was being sarcastic, remains ambivalent. While everyone knows that law is indeed “business” one is provoked to question how ethical it is to reduce the judiciary to “business.” The film however, does not bear this out as the High Court Division Bench goes strictly by what the two-member jury believes has been violated and what decides the guilt or innocence of the accused.

The Parliament of India passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, also known as the Nirbhaya Act in order to make significant amendments to Section 375. Section 375 pertains to the criminal offence of rape. Which defines rape as “sexual intercourse with a woman against her will, without her consent, by coercion, misrepresentation or fraud or at a time when she has been intoxicated or duped, or is of unsound mental health and in any case if she is under 18 years of age.” In the film, an assistant costume stylist, Anjali, is raped by a noted film director Rohan when she comes to his apartment to show him a choice of costumes. She files a FIR against him. While the Sessions Court holds him guilty, the case moves to the High Court and the real fight begins.

Section 375 is entirely a courtroom drama, a genre that lends itself to both action and dialogue, to a potential for dynamism and a sense of heightening suspense dependent on how the team is handling it. Ajay Bahl as director has infused just the right kind of heightening suspense in the audience forever bugged by the debate over whether the victim Anjali Dangle (Meera Chopra) was really raped or whether it was sex by mutual consent and due permission labelled “rape.” His acting team has excelled itself in delivering just the right blend of what may be called “designed spontaneity”, drama, brutally adult dialogue referring to intercourse, foreplay and so on very openly but in a very matter-of-fact manner. Akshaye Khanna as the defence lawyer, a case he takes against the insistent request of his wife (Sandhya Mridul) to refuse it, has given perhaps the best performance of his career filling in the character as he has, with satire, brutal attack, merciless interrogation of both victim and accused, and counter attack on the prosecution attorney Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chadda) who was once his junior. His body language filled with the arrogance of success, fame and confidence, is as articulate as his dialogue delivery, he is so good.

Richa, who is just beginning her career, is quite a good match for him but needs some more time and space to reach that kind of mature performance. The actress who portrays the accused Rohan Khurana (Rahul Bhatt)’s wife is wonderful in her dark and dignified silence as she sits in at the High Court hearings, walks out once and comes back again. Her exchange with her husband in the end with just four words, “It’s all over for me” says it all. Mridul is good in her guest cameo but the honours ought to go to the two judges portrayed so convincingly by Kishore Kadam and Krittika Desai, unlike most celluloid judges who are marginalised just with a nod or two of their silent heads. Meera Chopra as Anjali throws up a performance that blends naiveté with courage –a rare combination and that expression of uncertainty always on her face, forced to face all kinds of censorable questions in the presence of her parents and brother very well.

The court setting is closer to a real court than most films are, with a minimisation of glamour that makes the hearings and the arguments all that more real. Very few people are seen attending the hearings with the ‘audience’ dwindling with every passing day as the screaming and sloganeering and poster waving crowds outside the court get louder and angrier and more unruly forcing the police to use their own weapons of crowd control. However, one may add here that the mass resistance scenes often appear like stock shots of unruly crowds pulled out of some archival library.

Though the core of the film Section 375 was to prove in the High Court whether rape was actually committed or not or was a consensual act as the accused later states, the script uncovers other layers the practice of law is riddled with – production of a piece of evidence that does not exist, the utter corruption in the police force where the main constable uses the word “procedure” as and when he finds it convenient and yet is forced to remain silent when his corruption is proved. Then, the three perspectives of the rape/sex by consensus that the wonderful cinematography shows, are more confusing than explanatory which appears to have been done by designed intent.

The film also details the series of ‘verbal rapes’ the victim has to go through in facing questions from the one filing her FIR, from the counsellor, from the medical staff examining her, from the two lawyers in court, again and again and again showing how many times a rape victim who takes courage in her hands to file a rape complaint against her senior, an established film director, must go through. The film raises more questions than it answers because in the end, the audience leaves the theatre with whether justice has been rightly served or not and this is a feeling shared even by Gandhi, the prosecution attorney.

The cinematography, the editing, the sound design and the low key music work in harmony as if holding hands to reach a given destination, changing with the changing moods of the script and the dialogue is a sure winner but aimed probably at an intelligent and educated audience. In that sense, Saluja’s ironic statement, “Law is a jealous mistress”, smacks of patriarchal convictions by assuming that “law” is a woman and is therefore, “jealous” equating the woman of being both jealous and a mistress in a film which is trying to prove the guilt or innocence of a presumed rapist. Saluja states at one point, “Justice is abstract, Law is fact.” If this be true, which is debatable, can there ever be an ideal marriage between justice and law? Think about it.