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Dhananjoy – Challenging the Criminal Justice System

August 18, 2017 | By

Dhananjoy, the film is based on the infamous case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was hanged to death on August 14, 2004 on the charges of rape and murder of teenager Hetal Parekh. The film is based on trial by the media where Dhananjoy was labelled a killer and a rapist solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. It goes beyond merely raising questions and appeals to the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Dhananjoy film

Arindam Shil’s Dhananjoy

It takes courage to reopen an old case of a death sentence and throw it at the audience to judge for itself, about whether this sentence was justified or not, whether the perpetrator had really raped and murdered the teenage schoolgirl Hetal Parekh or not, and most importantly, whether any man can be punished twice for the same crime by the same system of criminal justice.

Filmmaker Arindam Sil and producers Shree Ventatesh Films have taken up this challenge. They have brought to us, a film named Dhananjoy after the infamous case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee who was hanged to death on August 14, 2004, fourteen long years after he had lived his life in the solitary cell of a prison. The film builds up a case that it states in all promotional teasers and trailers and press releases, was based on trial by the media where Dhananjoy was labelled a killer and a rapist solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. But the actual film goes much beyond raising questions and appealing to the audience to draw its own conclusions.

An on-going study is being conducted by the National Law University students with the help of the Law Commission currently engaged in a wider consultation with different stakeholders on the issue of death penalty. The basic debate is about whether it should be abolished. The statistical findings spell out how interviews with 373 death row convicts over a 15-year period, show that three-fourths of those given the death penalty belonged to backward classes, religious minorities and 75% were from economically weaker sections.  Dhananjoy Chatterjee was poor and did not have the power and influence to be able to tilt the judgement towards his innocence.

Dhananjoy, the film is converted into an edge-of-the-seat courtroom drama fictionalising the reopening of the case four years after he was hanged in 2004. The narrative flashes back to scenes from the past when Dhananjoy was alive and projects the present time to point out the gaps in the evidence by a committed lawyer Kavya (Mimi Chakraborty) under the guidance of her senior (Koushik Sen) that nailed him to a death sentence. It is tied to a tightly-knit script by Padmanava Dasgupta who had to wade through 5000 pages of documented research that focusses mainly on the lack of circumstantial evidence.

Dhananjoy film

A courtroom scene from Dhananjoy

The two court cases are constantly intercut from the scenes leading up to the crime, along with interactions with neighbours, the lift man, the other security guard and the agency person who supplied the security men, Hetal Parekh’s mother (Sudipta Chakraborty) and Dhananjoy’s family in his village Chhatna that included his old father (Paran Bandopadhyay), a priest who was forced to sell plots of his small land to fund his son’s case, mother, his wife, younger brother, and so on.

The drama is intense but the frames are once too often dominated by the fashionable persona of Kavya who is always impeccably dressed and made up and is in intelligent conversation with her senior. She says that she was pulled to the case from the expression she saw on Dhananjoy’s widow’s face in an NGO office run by her friend. Does that suffice the pull for her to reopen this infamous case where every single man, woman and child is totally convinced that Dhananjoy was a criminal and the hanging was justified? A slight reference to Kavya’s back story might have added some real flesh to the film.

Anirban Bhattacharya

Anirban Bhattacharya as Dhananjoy Chatterjee in the film Dhananjoy

When Kavya begins her investigation afresh, one of the doctors states that the rape was consensual. How can rape be ‘consensual’? ‘Consensus’ here probably means that the girl had consented to sex. The two things are mutually exclusive so this is a big logical lapse of the script and the film. Later during the court re-trial, Kavya insists that ‘sexual intercourse’ and ‘rape’ are two different things. So, how does this prove that Dhananjoy was innocent, never mind his constant insistence that he was innocent and was being framed?

Was Dhananjoy innocent? The film convinces us that perhaps, he was, since he was hanged solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence and there might have been some gaps in the investigation. The film also constructs some clues that he was kept away from coming back to the city after hearing of Hetal’s rape and murder but was stopped by ‘vested interests.’ But it fails to establish the identity and cause of these ‘vested interests.’ Why? The projections the film makes, such as, suggesting that the murder was possibly an honour killing are also based entirely on circumspection and speculation without the backup of any physical evidence. Hetal’s mother bashing her up only on the basis of blood in her under-garments could equally suggest that she was having her menstrual cycle. There is no conclusive proof that Hetal was late from school because she had had sexual adventures elsewhere.

The film in every aspect is a well-crafted and choreographed one in terms of acting by the entire cast, low-key music devoid of any song, sound and production design, dialogues and editing. It makes for a serious and well-synchronised courtroom drama based on projections inspired by historical fact, a feature not a frequent occurrence in Bengali cinema. Special commendation must go to Anirban Bhattacharya who succeeds in drawing the sympathy of the audience with his marvellous performance in the title role and to Paran Bandopadhyay who plays his desperate, angry and confused father. Mimi has done a good job as well but she is too glamorously built up for a lawyer involved in a very controversial case and this somehow does not ring true. Sudipta Chakraborty as Hetal’s mother is perfect. Kanchan Mullick and Mir Ali as the two lawyers in the original court case also fit into their characters like a glove.

Sudipta Chakraborty

Sudipta Chakraborty as Hetal Parekh’s mother in Dhananjoy

When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, members of his family, including his son suggested clemency for assassin Nathuram Godse, as a fitting tribute in memory of a leader who had laid down his life in the cause of non-violence, peace and universal brotherhood. But the tremendous public outcry followed by the killings of Brahmins in Pune wiped out the appeals in the outrage against Godse. Today, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Gopal Krishna Gandhi has requested clemency for Yakub Memon, kingpin of the Mumbai blasts in 1993 through a letter to erstwhile President Pranab Mukherjee in 2015.

Thus, death sentences remain as an issue of debate. It is one thing for Gandhi’s family to request clemency for Godse and quite another to appeal for Presidential clemency for the Mumbai bomb blasts that resulted in 257 deaths and 713 non-fatal injuries over 12 serial blasts that shook the entire city.

Till the last moment, Dhananjoy cried out that he was innocent. He also told his brother not to grieve for him because he would definitely come back. “I am innocent. I have not done anything. Please have faith in the fact that I will come back,” he said repeatedly to his brother and other members of his family who came to visit him. The body of Dhananjoy was not handed over to his family following the execution. Why? Perhaps the law and order machinery wished to block any possibility of a post-mortem after the fact, who knows? He was asked to sign on a blank sheet of paper by the police in charge and he did it. Why?  The arguments put forth by Dhananjoy to question the propriety of his sentence are partly convincing. But shifting the onus of the crime to someone else and doctoring the entire script to paint him innocent and paint someone else guilty are not.

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
All Posts of Shoma A Chatterji

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One thought on “Dhananjoy – Challenging the Criminal Justice System

  • Peeyush Sharma

    Very compelling review, makes one yearn to watch the film.

    Rich man is not “punished” anywhere in the world. Money and influence weaken the jaws of law in all parts of this world, so do racism and prejudice.

    Thanks for the review.

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