Rumi Jaffery’s mystery thriller Chehre (2021) had a lot going for it. It starred Amitabh Bachchan and Emraan Hashmi. In all probability, they were cast together for the first time. It also had a stellar supporting cast: Dhritiman Chatterjee, Annu Kapoor, and Raghuvir Yadav. Veteran lensman Binod Pradhan wielded the camera, while the music was composed by Vishal-Shekhar. The screenplay was co-written with Jaffrey by Ranjit Kapoor: the Ranjit Kapoor, who wrote Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Bandit Queen and The Legend of Bhagat Singh. What could possibly go wrong? And yet the output was as exciting as stale food left out to rot.
The plot was unofficially adapted from author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Die Panne (1956), a novella which he also simultaneously wrote as a radio play. It featured a garment salesman called Alfredo Traps, entrapped in a mansion with a group of enthusiastic old men who like playing games. They were interested in a particular kind of sport. The group comprised a retired judge, a retired defence attorney, a retired prosecutor and a retired hangman. Their way to ward off loneliness and monotony was to orchestrate mock trials, inviting unsuspecting guests to play the defendant. The jurists tried them for their crimes, and meted out justice. All in the spirit of the game. Traps walked right into it when he sought shelter from them one evening. The game seemed harmless enough. Over a generous meal and free-flowing drinks, his interrogation began. Traps had never committed a crime in his life. Or so he thought.
The seemingly benign questions revealed skeletons in the closet, and soon Traps was “charged” with murder. After this, the novella moves at a slick pace, rendering it impossible to set aside and finish reading at a later time. The story ends in tragedy — or justice, depending on how one looks at it. In the radio play which Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote almost immediately after, Traps wakes up the next morning and drives blissfuly away, as if nothing had happened. But twenty years after this, Dürrenmatt revisited and altered the material once again, where Traps is given a dual verdict: a “metaphysical” judgement of guilt and a “juristic” verdict of innocence. It was left up to the defendant to choose. Traps pleads guilty and ends himself with flourish. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s story was a meditation on the nature and futility of justice, and an examined what constituted evil.
Within a year, German filmmaker Fritz Umgelter adapted the play for television. James Yaffe, American playwright and screenwriter best known for a series of crime stories published in Ellery Queen’s ‘Mystery Magazine’ called ‘The Department of Impossible Crimes’, translated Dürrenmatt’s play and called it The Deadly Game (1960). The very next adaptation, if one could call it that, came from India. And it remains the best of the lot. Eminent Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar took the original material, and spun his own wool around it. He borrowed just the germ of the story — the idea of a mock trial and the whole subtext around justice and guilt. In the end, all that remained in his play was just that much. The rest of it was filled with Tendulkar’s signature rage about the hypocrisy and double standards he perceived in the Indian society.
With an inward gaze, Tendulkar’s play talks about a theatre group staging a mock trial as part of rehearsing for a play. Tendulkar’s Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe was written in 1963, and it was made into a film of the same name in 1971. The film was directed by eminent dramatist Satyadev Dubey. This was the only film Dubey ever made. Both Tendulkar and Dubey wrote screenplays for a number of films in the 70s and 80s, but this was the only occasion they were making a film together.
The group converges at a theatre hall hours before staging a play, a courtroom drama. One of them is Leela Benare, an attractive, vivacious woman who doesn’t let go of any opportunity to mock the men in the group, much to their chagrin. She is also playfully flirtatious (“How dare she!”)
There was some time to spare before the actual play. They decide to spice up the rehearsal by staging an imaginary court proceeding, a mock trial. But who will play the accused? A few of them volunteer for the role, but are turned down. Then one of the senior male members in the group, Sukhatme, wonders aloud, why not Miss Benare? She was in the adjoining room, freshening up. As the thought came to him, the man fondled her purse, his face attained a lecherous expression, and his mouth dripped saliva. All cases are more or less the same, he adds with a wink, but one with a woman as accused is always more interesting. It was decided — Benare was to be the defendant. But the accusation? What was she to be charged with? All members sans Benare huddle together to decide the case against her. They charged her of foeticide. Sukhatme chose to play a double role, both as the prosecutor as well as the defence councillor.
Benare emerges from her room, and decides to play along with what her compatriots had decided. The proceedings begin. The first few exchanges seem friendly, but the initial joie de vivre strips away as the interrogation becomes more and more severe. The boundaries between fact and fiction begin to blur as all the men sat on the witness stand and painted the picture of a woman with loose morals, always eager to seduce and malign the men. Everyone had an evidence against her, and her relationship with one Professor Damle (who everybody knew) was out in the open. It was alluded that Benare and Damle were in a physical relationship, and that’s how she became pregnant. She put up a brave face initially, but gradually her defences crumpled. With a vicious delight, they kept hurling accusations at her, including those who had been strangers to her before that day. The effervescent, vivacious, flirtatious Benare had been crushed. Justice was served. As everyone takes off their costumes and goes back to their normal selves, Benare lies on the floor in a bundle.
While there have been many adaptations of Die Panne, including an excellent HBO film called The Deadly Game (1982) and the Bengali Anusandhan (2021), it was Vijay Tendulkar’s searing scream from the gut that stands out. Instead of just a random rant about justice, crime and conviction, Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe was a potent reflection of the rampant misogyny and hypocrisy ingrained in our social fibre. Two of the prominent actors from the play are repeated in the film. Sulabha Deshpande plays Benare and Arvind Deshpande plays Sukhatme. Sulabha’s face is an ocean of emotions. The film itself contains many departures from Tendulkar’s play, and uses cinematic devices to reinforce the brutality and starkness of the proceedings. A 31-year-old cinematographer had debuted with the film, wielding his camera like a pen. His name was Govind Nihalani.