It is tough to make a feature film based on a true incident specially when the director chooses to draw from a real-life court case. But actor-turned-director Ananth Mahadevan has done it before and he has done it once again with his new film Mai Ghat – Crime No.103/2005 in Marathi. The film won the Hiralal Sen Memorial Award for Best Film at the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival recently.

On 24th July 2018, in a historic verdict, the CBI awarded two serving officers the death penalty believed to be the first in India. Mai Ghat – Crime No. 103/2005 tells us the back story of this sentence. The original incident happened in the South but Mahadevan has shifted it to Maharashtra.

The film opens on a flashback mode which ends in the same place but you get to know this only when the film returns to where it began – the prematurely aged mother Prabha Mai (Usha Jadhav) sitting quietly on the steps of her home watching a crow trying to catch some crumbs on the steps. She looks on with a tired, resigned expression on her face.

The story unfolds between these two frames as the camera flashes back by 13 years when Prabha Mai’s only teenaged son Nitin, who eked a living through collection and selling of scraps is arrested on a false charge of theft. In reality however, it is the police constable Sable (Kamlesh Sawant) who snatches Rs.4200 Nitin is carrying to buy new clothes for the Marathi New Year. When Nitin calls the policeman a thief, the policeman arrests him along with his friend Suresh without a warrant, releases Suresh after bashing him up badly and tortures Nitin so much that the boy dies within three hours of continuous torture.

All documented traces of the killing are wiped clean and the dead body is thrown on the ghats of a river and that is how Prabha Mai learns of her son’s death. Prabha Mai is a single mother whose husband has left the family. He arrives on hearing of his son’s death which has been reported as an “accident” voicing hopes of a handsome “compensation.” Prabha Mai remains silent and we never see the man again.

In fact, silence is her language, her strategy, her weapon of attack and defense and she expresses this silence in many ways – through her daily work of washing the clothes of the towns people on the Ghat, putting them out to dry on the clothesline, ironing them out on the antique, very heavy, coal-heated iron, doing her daily household chores and mostly, hiding her simmering anger around the injustice of her son’s murder. What come across powerfully through her body language and the fleeting expressions on her face is the quiet determination to see the two policemen who killed her older son just because he accused Sable of “swallowing” his mother’s earnings of Rs.4200 hanged to death.

When any hope of justice seems to fade, she gets help from Ranjana (Suhasini Mulay), an aged lawyer who helps her move the case to CBI when witnesses back away and the lower court dismisses the case.

The film stands out also because of the ambience the director has created where Nature and the physical environment of the village/small town are juxtaposed against each other. The Ghat where Mai washes her clothes, takes a dip and feels purified stands in contrast to the ghost of a city with its narrow roads, small shops and simple police station defining poverty and want while the ghat stands out in its sheer beauty even when the rains lash down on it or a fading sun peeps through a gap in the clouds.

Sable’s cruel nature comes across when, at the sugarcane juice shop, he overturns his empty glass and traps an ant in it. He also refuses to pay the juice seller and tells him to add it to his dues. But he loves his daughter dearly and encourages her to play hockey.

The CBI lawyer (Girish Oak) is sympathetic but practical and succeeds in convincing the lady constable Sunanda (Vibhavari Joshi) to become a witness for the defense at the risk of losing her job. Joshi portrays the role with a dignity rare among a crowd of male colleagues and boss. Ranjana, the senior lady lawyer tells her to quickly choose between continuing in a men’s toilet (the police station) and opting out.

The film is shot in almost monochromatic shades and one can hardly discern colour to match the colourless, drab life of Mai and her younger son Ganesh. This boy once brings an antique Ganesha statue with an umbrella from scrap. Mai says she will take it inside the house only after she wins the case.

Once, Sable in mufti visits her to threaten her but she quietly continues to fold her pan and as she sticks it into her mouth, she says he is not only cruel but also stupid and stupid men can be very cruel.

The very young and relatively new Usha Jadhav has enough command to carry the entire film on her slender shoulders and hold on to her own even when pitted against veteran performers like Girish Oak and Suhasini Mulay. She slowly walks out of the courtroom when a witness describes in graphic detail how her son died. But we do not see her weeping or crying or sobbing over the entire film.

The acting by the entire cast is almost organic and the credit is shared between the director and his cast. The courtroom is completely stripped of glamour and all this is orchestrated like a real court. The film uses very little and understated music that does not intrude into or lighten the gravity of the subject.

The sole point of relief comes in the brief interactions between Mai and her younger son Ganesh, 12 when Nitin dies and around 25 when he comes back from his hostel on vacation. He brings the Ganesha idol in even before the court verdict is out. He urges his mother to slow down on her washing and to keep a helper but she remains quiet. In the end, we see her collecting all kinds of colourful clothes out of an old trunk, taking these to the Ghat and arranging them to create the face of her dear son Nitin captured beautifully in a top angle show. She pats that big face as if trying to put him to sleep.

The most outstanding feature of the entire film is the way in which the director, Mahadevan has used his restraint so that not for a single minute does a single frame or scene go overboard or gets into a melodramatic mode though, given the narrative, there was enough scope for the film reducing itself into a tear-jerking melodrama. The actual torture and death in police custody is only through description and never through visuals.

Towards the end, Sable’s wife and daughter visit Mai begging her to forgive her husband. When Mai remains silent, reminding them of their absence for 13 long years, the woman, very angry, says – “you are not fighting for justice, you are fighting for revenge.” Mai says, “I have forgotten the difference between justice and revenge long back.”

There are two kinds of courage this film underlines – one is the subject of the film that demanded a lot of courage as it deals with a sharp and open indictment of the police and the other is the courage expressed by the protagonist drawn from the angst and pain of a mother who lost her son in real life.