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22 April 2020

Kanoon (1960)

Directed by: BR Chopra
Music: Salil Choudhury
Starring: Ashok Kumar, Nana Palsikar, 
Rajendra Kumar, Nanda, 
Om Prakash, Shashikala,
 Jeevan, Iftekhar, 
Jagdish Raj, Mehmood, 
Shubha Khote, Manmohan Krishna
Today is the birth anniversary of one of Hindi cinema’s luminaries. He might not be as well-known as Sohrab Modi, V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor or Guru Dutt; his films may not have the colour and verve of Nasir Hussain or even his younger brother, Yash Chopra, but Baldev Raj Chopra, or BR Chopra, as he was known, made some very iconic films that were both thought-provoking and often, socialist in their messaging. One of these early films was Kanoon, the first song-less thriller in Hindi films.

Kanoon, as is self-evident from the title, deals with the law. It begins with one question – can one man be punished twice for the same crime? And then moves on to arguments about the veracity of circumstantial evidence. and ends with a very trenchant speech against capital punishment.
Kanoon begins with a murder a man named Ganpat is shot dead. His killer, Kalidas (Jeevan), who had just been released from jail after serving a 10-year sentence is arrested and arraigned in the Sessions Court before Judge Badri Prasad (Ashok Kumar). The facts are open and shut. Or so thinks the public prosecutor, Kailash (Rajendra Kumar). Only, Kalidas springs a surprise – no court can punish him for this crime, he says. And why not, enquires the judge. Kalidas claims double jeopardy he cannot be punished twice for the same crime.
Before the fascinated court, Kalidas lays out his past. Ten years ago, he had been arrested for murdering Ganpat. He had shouted out his innocence but no one had listened. He has now spent the best years of his life in jail. His wife (Leela Chitnis in a one-shot cameo) has grown old before her time. Can the Law return what it took from them? And if not, what right does the Law have to take it away in the first place? This impassioned speech ends in his death right there in the witness box.
 
The case is so sensational that later that week, Badri Prasad finds himself discussing it with his colleagues – the senior Sessions judge Jha (Dewan Sharar) and his peer, Savarkar (Iftekhar). The latter agrees with Badri Prasad's view that justice must be tempered with mercy. Especially if the punishment for a crime is a death sentence. Badri Prasad is very vocal about it – if the Law cannot revive a man, then it has no right to pronounce a death sentence either. 
Jha is not convinced. He seems sure that without the fear of capital punishment to keep violent crime in check, society would dissolve into anarchy. The spirited discussion ends in a jocular challenge Jha wagers his entire salary if Badri Prasad can commit the perfect murder, and get away with it.
Meanwhile, Kailash is getting ready for an evening out with his girlfriend, Meena (Nanda), Badri Prasad's daughter.  She wants him to speak to her father about their marriage, but Kailash – brought up and educated by Badri Prasad, and looking upon him as a father figure – hasn't yet found the right moment. Squabbling amicably, they go to Meena's house to pick her father up; they are scheduled to visit the theatre for a ballet performance. 
But Badri Prasad backs out; he's exhausted after a day in court, he says, and refuses to accept Meena's offer to stay back. So engrossed are Meena and Kailash in the performance (and in each other) that they don't notice that Badri Prasad, dressed very formally in a dark coat, hat and white gloves, is canoodling with a very beautiful woman (Shashikala) in the box seats above them. 
When Meena returns, she's surprised to see her father dressed. Badri Prasad explains that he had gone out for a walk. 

Soon, we meet the mystery woman again. This time, she's visiting the notorious moneylender, Dhaniram (Om Prakash). We soon realise that she hasn't come of her own volition; Dhaniram is blackmailing her. She is the late Ganpat's wife. She had married him while still married to her first husband, and bigamy, Dhaniram points out, is a crime.
But Ganpat is now dead, says she, and so is her second husband, so Dhaniram has lost his golden goose. But, ah, now she's going out with a third man – another wealthy man, no doubt, and if he, Dhaniram, were to open his mouth... Shooting him a look of intense loathing, she threatens him with consequences. 
As she leaves, Dhaniram gets another visitor Vijay (Mehmood), Badri Prasad's son. He's the bigda hua shehzaada (or spoilt brat) whose lifestyle is beyond his means. His days of clubbing, gambling and girlfriends has delivered him into the hands of Dhaniram, and this, despite him managing to con his sister into giving him money whenever he falls short. Dhaniram had lent him Rs4,000 at usurious rates, and now, interest and capital has brought the total up to Rs7,000. And Dhaniram wants it now. Vijay, of course, is still in dire straits. And has no way of repaying such a huge amount. What's more, being stupid, he had also signed a blank paper, which is now in Dhaniram's hands. 
As Dhaniram points out, he can write whatever amount he chooses, including all of Badri Prasad's property on that document. Frightened out of his wits, Vijay rushes to his kid sister for help. Meena is aghast – where's she going to get Rs7,000 from? She turns to Kailash, who promises to visit Dhaniram and see what he can do. However, it will have to be later that night; Kailash has a Bar Association dinner to attend. 
And so, around 11.30, after the dinner, Kailash pays Dhaniram a visit. Dhaniram, who's just poured himself a glass of milk prior to going to bed, is surprised but welcoming. He even offers Kailash a glass of sherbet. Being the Public Prosecutor, Kailash is soon able to do a bit of minor blackmailing himself. 
The threat of having the police search his premises makes Dhaniram decide that discretion is the better part of valour. He goes to the safe to get the paper which Vijay signed, and Kailash moves to the window, only to get the shock of his life. 
Confused about why his mentor should be coming to visit Dhaniram so late in the night, Kailash decides it's better not to meet him there. Warning Dhaniram not to say anything about his presence, Kailash slips into the adjacent room. Dhaniram opens the front door, but only has time to exclaim 'Judge saab' before Badri Prasad takes out a dagger. 
 
Then, coolly switching off the lights, the killer and makes his way out the door. Initially shocked into immobility, the precariousness of his position dawns on him and Kailash quickly leaves the building as well. 

Enter a petty thief, Kaalia (Nana Palsikar), who upon spying Dhaniram's open window, opportunistically attempts what he thinks is going to be an easy burglary.  Only, he gets himself into a worse pickle. Dhaniram's cat had knocked over the glass of milk in the dark, and Kaalia, stepping gingerly, slips on the wet floor and lands on Dhaniram's body. Scrabbling around the dark, Kaalia's hands end up on the hilt of the dagger protruding from Dhaniram's stomach.
The light of a fallen table lamp shows Kaalia the gory scene – and his hands, dripping with blood. A terrified Kaalia exits the room the same way he entered it – down the drain pipe. Only, he falls straight into the hands of  a patrolling constable and Sub-Inspector Das (Jagdish Raj). Caught – literally – redhanded, Kaalia is hauled off to the police station and charged with the murder of Dhaniram. 

The next morning, an already worried Meena is shocked when she hears about Dhaniram's death. She hurries to meet Kailash who has fallen into an uneasy sleep. But the morning newspapers are full of Kaalia's arrest – news which relieves Meena but shocks Kailash into hurrying to the police station.
There, Kaalia is vociferously protesting his innocence; he's a thief, not a murderer. But SI Das has no doubts. Kaalia was caught red-handed fleeing from the murder scene; his footprints were visible in the milk-sodden floor, and his fingerprints were on the murder weapon. Kailash is the only man alive who knows that Kaalia is innocent. 
But he's torn between his professional duty and personal obligation to the man who not only stands in loco parentis to him, but is also his professional mentor.  

Wrestling with his conscience, Kailash eventually resigns his post as Public Prosecutor to fight Kaalia's defence. Unfortunately for him, the case is being heard by Badri Prasad as the presiding judge. Kailash is in a quandry; as the new Public Prosecutor (Manmohan Krishna) builds up a seemingly airtight case against Kaalia, Kailash, in his opening statement, appeals to the 'real murderer' to confess his guilt. He's aghast that Badri Prasad is not only acting ignorant but is also presiding over the case under the emblem of justice that proclaims the words, Satyameva Jayate (Truth will prevail).

And now, he has to prove Kaalia innocent. Without telling anyone what he saw, and whom. Without confiding even in Meena who, knowing Kailash had gone to visit Dhaniram upon her sayso, now suspects that her beloved is the murderer. What Kailash doesn't know then is how far Meena will go to 'save' him. 
And how far he will have to bend to live up to his own conscience.  

Kanoon isn’t so much a ‘Whodunnit?’ or ‘Whydunnit?’ as it is an argument against accepting circumstantial evidence as the final nail in an accused’s coffin. While the suspense is maintained throughout the film, even though both Kailash and the audience have witnessed the murder, the film forces us to think whether we can really trust what we see. 
 
In fact, Kanoon is more a psychological drama, forcing Kailash (and by extension, the viewer) to wrestle with his conscience – do we give up the person we love and to whom we owe not only our careers but our very lives, or do we stay silent to protect them? It is this very question that throws Meena into confusion. Is the man she loves a murderer? Can she save him from the law? Or should she express her suspicions to her father? Who is telling the truth? Who is not?

Against these personal conflicts lies the conflict that society has yet to resolve: is ‘a life for a life’ really justice? Justice, they say, is blind – hence the blindfold, so she can’t tilt the scales in favour. However, how do we serve justice? Can we trust to eyewitness accounts when a man’s life is at stake? Can one man’s testimony be used to punish another, especially when the sentence for murder is death? How do we view witness bias? How do we allow a judge and jury to decide a man’s fate? Kanoon was almost prescient in posing these questions: a year earlier (probably when Chopra was filming Kanoon), jury bias in the Nanavati case had served to end trial by jury in the Indian justice system.

Having assembled a stellar star cast, BR extracted some finely nuanced performances from them. Rajendra Kumar (not one of my favourites, usually) was excellent as Kailash, a man forced by his conscience to defend an accused in the court of his mentor, while keeping his knowledge of the real murderer confidential. 
His performance was finely nuanced, bringing out his shock and grief and his inner conflict very well indeed. (I do wish he hadn't gone into the 'Nahiiinn!' mode of emoting towards the end.) 
Nanda, as Meena, his girlfriend, was in fine form too, especially when she fears he’s the murderer and yet she cannot bring herself to voice that suspicion aloud. The delicate interplay between her and Kailash is a delight to watch for what it leaves unsaid. Watch her almost palpable relief in the scene where she rushes to Kailash's house only to spot the morning newspapers. Or the scene where, disturbed by Kailash's inner conflict and continued silence, and suspecting that he's the killer, she quickly removes a knife that he's unconsciously playing with.
 
Ashok Kumar is his usual competent self, bringing the necessary gravitas to his role as the judge, while circumstances force him into a role he couldn’t foresee.  He has been condemned as the killer not only by Kailash's eyewitness account but also by his own written statement.
 
But as he points out, lives hang in balance when circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts are accepted as the absolute truth.

These three are the principal actors and the film revolves around their conflicts – both inner and outer – and they are ably supported by Shashikala and Om Prakash who provide the reasons for these conflicts. And above all, there is Nana Palsikar as Kalia, a man accused of a murder he didn’t commit, but who has no proof of his innocence. 
Kaalia begins to steal to provide for his only child. Having fallen ill due to his wife's unexpected demise, he couldn't work. And then, no one would give him work because he had been to jail. Pushed deeper and deeper into a life of crime, Kaalia becomes a perpetual offender, and therefore, is hardput to prove his innocence when faced with a false charge of murder. The actor infused his character with a humanity that made us grieve for him and root for his acquittal. The role won him a well-deserved Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Kanoon was a taut psychological thriller, with no song-and-dance sequences to dilute the tension. There’s just one extended ballet sequence featuring Gopi Krishna that beautifully married Western ballet with Indian dance and was extremely important to the narrative. (Though I can't warm to Gopi Krishna's dance or choreography!)
With Salil Choudhury’s background score effectively used to ramp up the tension and suspense, BR made full use of silences to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ us of the characters’ state of mind.

All in all, a film that still stands the test of time, and still – six decades later – poses questions which makes one ponder what ‘justice’ really means.

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