After a protracted absence, acclaimed Marathi feature director, Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni, is back with the three-part Netflix docu-fiction series, Murder In A Courtroom. This latest instalment of the true-crime series, Indian Predator, shows how oppressed men and women from a slum in Nagpur, Maharashtra, were compelled to use force against a local criminal, Akku Yadav, who had terrorised and wreaked havoc on their lives with violence and defilement. The series is hard-hitting, doesn’t make for pleasant viewing and loudly criticises the ineptitude of our country’s legal system.
A dreaded local criminal, Bharat Kalicharan Yadav, also known as Akku Yadav, was brutally murdered in a packed courtroom on August 13, 2004, by a crowd of hundreds of men and women hailing from the slum of Kasturba Nagar in Nagpur. They cold-bloodedly attacked Yadav with knives, red chilli powder and stones, scattering once the vigilante justice was served. Five women were detained and arrested by the police as a result of this mob violence. Soon, a large number of slum dwellers, consisting mainly of women, showed up at the police station and confessed to Yadav’s murder. The case gained notoriety and soon the inevitable media circus began. Through interviews with the slum dwellers, friends of Yadav, social activists, and lawyers, amongst others, Kulkarni tries to unearth the reasons (and the truth) behind this monstrous act. A decade later, all the women accused of murdering Yadav were acquitted for lack of evidence…
Murder In A Courtroom examines a horrific true-life incident through the prism of societal injustice and the reciprocation of those who were denied justice. The sensitive interviews and the theatrical recreations to help us understand what really happened serve as the documentary’s two main supporting pillars for strengthening its storytelling spine. Kulkarni, who has gained popularity as a fiction filmmaker, uses his storytelling abilities ably to strike a balance between preconceptions and facts. While Yadav’s lawyer still refuses to acknowledge that his client raped almost forty women without ever being charged, the victims’ interviews give us heartbreaking details of the several atrocities inflicted on them by Yadav. The slum ladies created the code word ‘madam’ among themselves so they could communicate with one another about hiding their daughters and daughter-in-laws or else they might fall prey to Yadav’s carnal lust. Young married women, teenagers, pregnant women, elderly women – all were his potential victims. So it seems more than justifiable to them that after lynching Yadav in the courtroom, the women from the slum celebrated their ‘victory’ by eating mutton for dinner!
Kulkarni makes critical comments on how the helpless voices of the victims were never acted upon by the police and media. Yadav had been arrested multiple times but never served even a year of his sentence. The reason given by his lawyer is that every time the witnesses turned hostile and so Yadav would be released. At the same time, the police officials were in close collusion with Yadav, showing zero interest in lodging a complaint from the victims because they were poor and Dalits. In fact, the people from the slum also futilely held a press conference to inform the citizens about the atrocities of Yadav and the negligence shown by the police. Moreover, as the case gained popularity, news channels such as NDTV shamelessly held polls via SMS to determine whether the women acquitted were right or wrong. Kulkarni’s series is, therefore, best seen as a potent medium to highlight the ongoing struggle of the have-nots to make those in power take action against those responsible for violence against women in the country.
But… Yes, there are some niggling issues in the series. Despite Kulkarni’s grip on the material (he is also credited for the writing), the acts of Yadav’s savagery, narrated by various women through the first two episodes, becomes far too repetitive. It underlines in triplicate the evilness of Yadav and at places, brings the narrative to a grinding halt. Though episodes 1 and 2 remain eminently watchable, it is only in episode 3 that the narrative finally gathers momentum to leave us on a high. We also never get to know why the police official supported Yadav so much. Was Yadav merely a political stooge or did he bribe the police heavily for his protection? This is never touched upon and not having any interviews with any police officer brings a kind of bias and unbalance within the series.
The camerawork is divided between Deepti Gupta and Savita Singh. While Gupta has shot the documentary portions, Singh has filmed the dramatic enactments. Gupta intimately and sensitively captures the personal and psychological turmoil of those who were terrorized by Yadav. Her careful and skilful framing keeps the subjects at an objective distance rather than going for obviously dramatic close-ups. She makes sure that these people tell their truth in a comforting way, regardless of whether some of the ladies are unrepentant about their actions or if for some of them, the wounds are difficult to heal even today though they might have been buried back somewhere at the back of their minds. Singh keeps the bleak, melancholy texture and the dark tonality with her lighting, fluid camera movements and perceptive compositions. Manisha Baldawa’s deftly knits the interviews and the dramatic recreations together with an unbroken, visual flow that keeps the series moving smoothly. She also seamlessly integrates archival news clippings and graphics into the narrative. Mangesh Dhakde’s apt background score and Mohandas VP’s evocative sound design both create a sombre, foreboding mood for the series.
Yadav’s killing then still raises many pertinent questions regarding the effectiveness of the present criminal justice system. The brilliance of Murder In A Courtroom lies in the fact that Kulkarni is able to raise a formal debate on the rationale on the existence of such a system, through his interviews with lawyers and reporters. He makes us wonder whether one should support or condemn the violence shown by the residents of Kasturba Nagar’s slum, having taken the law into their own hands. The solution could be found perhaps by imagining what we ourselves might have done had we had been in the pitiful position of those abandoned by the custodians of law and order.
All in all, Murder In A Courtroom, is a thought-provoking and worthy watch.
Hindi, True Crime, Docu-Fiction, Color