Courtroom dramas can be thrilling but it depends on how the story is treated by the cast, crew and directorial team and accepted by the audience. They can also inspire excitement for the viewers when based on a true case.

‘Sirf Ek Banda Kafi Hai’ (Just one man is enough) is a courtroom drama based on a true story which shocked the nation in 2013. The case went on till 2018 when the culprit was declared guilty of raping a minor.

The crime was committed by a famous Godman who could afford the most expensive lawyers to defend him, but thanks to the perseverance, argumentative logic and determination of an ordinary advocate, P. C. Solanki (Manoj Bajpeyi), the convict was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Apoorv Singh Karki picks this story for his feature film debut, after having established himself in a few web series. With a performer like Manoj Bajpeyi portraying advocate P. C. Solanki, he really had little to worry about.

However, he is the captain of the ship and it may have drowned in mid-sea had he not been in complete control. Thanks to Karki, this ship sails right through and gets across with its flag flying high.

Nu (Adrija Sinha) is a bright and brave teenager who, along with her parents, decides to file a rape and molestation charge against Babaji, a Godman. Babaji has millions of followers and is also known for building schools and hospitals where education and treatment are free. He delivers sermons to his dedicated devotees, most of whom donate a share of their earnings to Babaji’s ashrams.

Nu’s father runs a transport service which faces a near-shutdown because of the case and also because of his absence.

‘Sirf Ek Banda Kafi Hai’ is actually a fictionalised account of the charges of rape and molestation of a teenage girl by Aasaram Bapu who is lodged in jail right now serving a life sentence. According to latest news reports, the survivor and her parents are being given extra police protection as they face a threat to their lives.

The film opens with the teenaged Nu (Adrija Siinha) stepping into a police station in Jodhpur to lodge a complaint against Babaji, accusing him of raping and molesting her. The woman cop takes it down, looks at her curiously and before stepping out, asks her to cover her face with her chunni so that the crowds outside do not bother her.

From this point on till just before the final scene, we never see the survivor without the veil covering half her face. Her glaring eyes, sometimes teary, are open for us to see.

The scene switches on to advocate Solanki’s apartment where he lives with his widowed mother and young son with whom he has a warm bond. Solanki’s a religious man who begins his day offering prayers to an array of Gods and Goddesses. He tries to instil similar devotion in his son who obeys sweetly, wishing for his favourite ice-cream as he prays.

The public response to Babaji’s sudden arrest right in the middle of a ‘pravachan’ in front of hundreds of devotees creates a law-and-order situation. The devotees are against the arrest and gather outside the precincts where Babaji is jailed waiting to pounce on the complainant and her bewildered parents.

When the girl’s father overhears a telephonic conversation between his lawyer about an ‘exchange’ with devotees of Babajee, he promptly approaches Solanki who readily accepts the case to save “a little girl who has the courage to face her abuser enough to fight a case”.

The scene now keeps vacillating between and among the simple courtroom with few attendees, the huge crowds waiting to attack those who are ‘conspiring’ against Babaji, and the media rushing with their mikes and cameras to thrust these into the faces of the girl, her parents, Solanki, and his junior.

Solanki’s home with his humble name plate at the bottom of the staircase, and the narrow lanes of Jodhpur with its thronging crowds are all captured brilliantly by the cinematographer. The viewer gets a collage of the less glamorous sides of Jodhpur which adds a spatial dimension to the story.

As Nu narrates her tale, we are taken back in time to when Babajee asked her to enter his room following a pravachan, bolted the door from inside and molested her. These flashbacks offer us a deep glimpse into what goes on in Babajee’s Ashrams.

But the courtrooms offer the central stage in the film, moving from the Sessions Court to the High Court to the Supreme Court and back to the Sessions Court. Nu, her parents, Solanki and his junior form the lowest common denominator in the entire scenario.

Babajee is visible inside the courtroom only once and then peeps from behind the curtains in another room. His mood keeps changing from acceptance to resignation, to anger as his bail pleas are rejected and the length of his captivity increases. The courtroom itself is simple and minimally furnished unlike the spacious and glamorous courtrooms we see in mainstream Bollywood films.

But all this is just a slice of the big cake which is baked to perfection by the outstanding performance of Manoj Bajpeyee and Adrija Siinha, and the goings-on inside the courtroom.

The real lawyer Solanki, has not taken kindly to the use of his name in the film, one hears. But Bajpeyee displays a rainbow of emotions through the way he carries himself, including the price tag on his new suit he forgets to tear off on the final day which the judge points out. The manner in which he, as the on-screen Solanki, quotes from the book on the POCSO law, his way he apologetically interrupts his opponent, reveals a dynamically intelligent man hiding behind the simple exterior.

He is determined to win the case on behalf of the brave girl. It is one of Bajpeyee’s most brilliant performances which underscores his right to be labelled the best actor on the Hindi film screen right now. The script adds a slightly comic touch mixed with satire to Solanki’s character.

When Babajee’s goons approach Solanki with a bag containing Rs.20 crores as bribe, he asks his mother what that amount can buy in Jodhpur. The mother retorts, “with that kind of money, you can buy the entire city”.

Solanki, first kindly and then bursting with anger, asks the men to pick the bag and walk out. When he learns of witnesses being killed in broad daylight, Solanki is terrified, both in his waking hours and in his dreams.

With threats to his life and to the life of the girl and her family, he asks his junior to step down but himself remains loyal to his client. As fees, all he had asked of her parents was “a smile on the baccha’s face.”

‘Sirf Ek Banda Kafee Hai’ reinforces, for once at least, that some films do indeed replicate the real world of the court system in and through cinema.

Adrija Sinha as Nu throws up an award-worthy performance. Her eyes carry unshed tears and burn with rage, she steadies her shaky voice with a firmness that is difficult to gather in the courtroom.

Sinha is a prize-worthy actress who, without glamour, without make-up, without styled garments or hairstyle, has given a perfect performance. Soon after the final judgement, Nu breaks into silent tears and the sound track remains silent as a mark of respect to her private grief.

The sound design, editing, music and production design keep pace with the changing moods of the film. It is dotted with a few moments of quiet respite when we see Solanki looking out at the city from his balcony, when he breaks into unshed tears and seeks solace on his mother’s shoulders, or is frantic with worry when his son goes missing. The elements are picked up from any man’s real life and the credit goes to Apoorv Singh Karki and to Bajpeyee.

The cameos by the other actors, Solanki’s constant opponent Sharmaji, the other snooty and elder legal experts, the two police personnel, a man and a woman who attend all the hearings in the court in support of Nu, Solanki’s junior and Nu’s harried parents are value additions to the film.

The two things I didn't quite understand were: Solanki organising a grand pooja in his home on the morning of the final judgement, and his use of the story from mythology about Ravana not being forgiven by Shiva as he had committed a ‘mahapaap’ in his closing statement in the final court hearing.

This struck me as strange because just before this, he was questioning why everything in such cases had to revolve around dharma meaning religion, or faith. Was he not, therefore, contradicting his own statement?

Thankfully, the court remains respectfully silent unlike many other courtroom dramas where sounds become deafening. There is no caricaturing of lawyers nor glamourising, this makes the scenario not only simple but convincing. The violence is shown with restraint and the street murders take just split seconds of screen time.

‘Sirf Ek Banda Kafi Hai’ is one of the best courtroom dramas this critic has seen through all the four decades of watching films. Other than Chaitanya Tamhane’s ‘Court’ which has won many awards.

But the moot question in these real-life stories of godmen exploiting children by making boys disappear and girls raped, is, are the parents also not equally culpable in the wronging of their own children?

Nu would never have been raped or molested if her parents, who were ardent devotees of Babaji, had not admitted her in one of his schools? Think about it.