A Holy Conspiracy Unfolds in Layers
The film is a contemporary, Indianised adaptation of Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Any film dealing with debates around the existence and non-existence of God is bound to be extremely verbose and controversial. A Holy Conspiracy is no exception. It is a Bengali film where the dialogue vacillates between Bengali, English, Hindi and the Santhali dialects, but is dubbed an "English language film."
The film is written and directed by Saibal Mitra. Mitra is a dedicated filmmaker who is less bothered about how his film will be received by the audience and critics, than about its final execution. So he is by no means a prolific filmmaker.
Mitra has managed a unique casting coup by featuring Naseeruddin Shah and Soumitra Chatterjee. The two are pitted against each other in a courtroom drama on a fragile socio-political subject. The plot revolves around Joseph Baske (Sraman Chatterjee), an Adivasi teacher of the small, suburban town of Hillolganj who has been arrested for the "crime" of refusing to teach the Bible before his Physics class. This was considered by the local Church, and the Christian Missionary that runs the school as "blasphemy".
A peep into the origins of the film's plot reveals that it is a contemporary, Indianised adaptation of Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The play presents a dramatic account of the Scopes Trial, formally The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, and commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial.
This was an American legal case from July 10 to July 21, 1925, in which a high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school.
A Holy Conspiracy deals with the Adivasi teacher on trial for refusing to teach his students the Biblical story of evolution before his biology class on Charles Darwin's theory. However, the courtroom drama happening centre stage tends to marginalise his strong belief in the ideology of the Santhal tribe, its language and religion, though he is an atheist.
Baske insists that he is neither Christian nor Hindu, but belongs to everything his community of Santhals in Hillolganj stands for. As many Santhals have converted to Christianity, Baske's arrest is welcomed by his own people. There is chaotic sloganeering in the backdrop, among Adivasi locals divided in their loyalties for and against Baske.
The enactment is confined to the courtroom arguments between Reverend Basanta Kumar Chatterjee (Soumitra Chatterjee) and Anton D'Souza (Naseeruddin Shah). The Reverend, a scholar in science and also in the Bible, is determined to get Baske punished under the law of the land, for refusing to teach the students the Christian theory of God being the creator of Man. He has been appointed by the church pastor to represent the school. De'Souza, appointed by Baske's friends and colleagues, is hell bent on proving the man's innocence.
The drama unfolds in the courtroom, with an equally brilliant performance by the late Jagannath Guha as the judge, which stands out because of the brilliant arguments the two great actors are engaged in. Baske's back story, and his humiliation through a cooked-up case by the school's managing committee, is kept as an indirect and secondary frame of reference. It is never brought to the forefront which would have backed the film with the logic it tends to veer away from.
There is a subplot where we hear how blind belief in God according to the Bible led to the death of a small boy, to add strength to D'Souza's argument. But basically, the film is focussed on the slanging match between two of the best legal practitioners in the country, enriched by the dynamic performances by the two legendary actors.
Baske's and his girlfriend, Reshmi Mary Mal's (a brilliant cameo by Amrita Chatterjee) characters needed fleshing out to underscore the constant dominance of the local Church head, and the school's managing committee. This dominance was asserted not only over the teaching faculty, but also on the syllabus and the teaching sequence in subjects students need not have in their high school course.
This comes to the fore through the out-of-courtroom scenes in the hotel lounge where the two lawyers meet and exchange nostalgia from their past. And also when Baske's girlfriend comes to the hotel to vent out her anger on Reverend Chatterjee. These appear more organic and natural than the courtroom scenes and bring us back to normalcy for a brief while.
Sraman Chatterjee as the smouldering, angry Baske is very convincing with his silence and his quiet, simmering anger, having little dialogue to vent his anger with. Anasua Majumder as Bijoya, the Reverend's concerned and erudite wife is poised in her dignity and her warmth.
There is the cliché journalist stereotype Harinath Singha (Koushik Sen) who thoroughly enjoys taking pot-shots at all in his own, no-holds-barred fashion. No one seems to take a liking to him. A very good performance which provides both relief and irritation rolled into one. He moves around in a luxury car while Anton D'Souza, who lives in self-imposed exile in the neighbourhood, travels back home by the local bus.
Asok Dasgupta's cinematography keeps the visuals toned down, both within the courtroom and the hotel/guest house lounge. This is a relief from the action in the foreground, and also strips the ambience of any glamour that might have spoiled the spirit of the narrative.
One glaring visual that recurs is the sudden appearance and disappearance of a beherupiya dressed as the Lord Rama. He is painted in blue with a bow and arrow and flits in and out of the courtroom at will. Is this to suggest that Hindus also hold a strong voice in the town? If yes, this does not come across even as a suggestion.
The background score by Tejendra Narayan Majumdar is a bit loud but fitting. The song belted out in the Church by the Pastor's daughter, who is also Baske's girlfriend, is a needless intrusion. There is a fleeting scene of a passing religious procession on the streets, which is just a visual reference to the town's people. Mitra is known for the long running footage of all his films. A Holy Conspiracy with a running time of 143 minutes, is no exception.
It is really "man's right to think" that has been placed on trial as De 'Souza insists during one of his arguments. But does this come across in the film? It does, but only in passing and only towards the end. But does this message get across to the audience? Time will offer the answer.
This is a powerful argument placed within a courtroom where the debate is between God and Evolution. So, though Baske is set free in the end, one does not really understand how the debate ended. A not-to-be-missed film, true. But whether it will also get its message across, remains a rhetorical question.