9 years before he made the superb suspense thriller Ittefaq, B R Chopra produced and directed this film. It too starred Nanda (though not in as pivotal a role as in Ittefaq). It too didn’t have a single song—though it did have a ballet performance. And, like Ittefaq, it hinged on a murder.
But Kanoon wasn’t by any means a precursor to Ittefaq. Ittefaq is mainstream murder mystery; Kanoon straddles with consummate skill the line between crime detection and social issues. It’s an excellent, unusual and gripping film that merits viewing.
Kanoon begins with a bang, literally—the bang as a crook called Ganpat is shot dead. Ganpat’s killer is the ex-convict Kalidas (Jeevan, in a brilliantly acted though very brief role). Kalidas has just emerged from jail after serving 10 years, and is soon re-arrested.
When his case comes up for hearing in the sessions court, presided over by the judge Badri Prasad (Ashok Kumar), Kalidas springs a surprise. No court can sentence him, he says: he has just served 10 years for the murder of Ganpat.
Kalidas follows this up with an impassioned diatribe against the fickleness of Indian justice. When he had been sentenced 10 years ago, Kalidas had gone to prison pleading his innocence, but no-one had listened. 10 years of his life have been snatched away because the judicial system was flawed. His wife (Leela Chitnis in the briefest of cameos; only one frame is devoted to her silent, sorrowful face) is now old before her time. He himself is weak and worn—so worn, in fact, that at the end of his speech, he collapses and dies.
Later that day, Badri Prasad is in his chambers, chatting with two colleagues, the judges Jha (
Moolchand Dewan Sharar) and Savarkar (Iftekhar). As would be expected, the conversation centres round the strange case of Kalidas. Savarkar and Badri Prasad are disturbed by it and realise that justice must be tempered. Taking the matter to its conclusion, both Savarkar and Badri Prasad say that capital punishment should be abolished.
The conversation meanders on, till the point where Jha challenges Badri Prasad to try and commit a murder and not be caught out. Badri Prasad laughingly takes up the challenge. All a joke, of course.
Next, we are introduced to the Public Prosecutor, Kailash (Rajendra Kumar). Kailash has been brought up and educated by Badri Prasad, and thinks of the judge almost as his father.
Kailash is getting ready for an evening out with his girl friend Meena (Nanda), who is Badri Prasad’s daughter. Meena has been urging Kailash to speak to her father about their getting married, but Kailash is waiting for the right moment.
That evening, Kailash, Meena and Badri Prasad are to go to the theatre, but Badri Prasad backs out, pleading fatigue. Kailash and Meena go off together, and are so absorbed in the performance, they don’t see what’s happening in the box up above. Badri Prasad, in dark overcoat, hat, and white gloves, seems to be getting very cosy with a glamorous woman (Shashikala).
The next we see of this woman is at the house of the moneylender Dhani Ram (Om Prakash). From their conversation, it’s obvious that there’s no love lost between the two. He accuses her of bigamy—she had married another man while her first husband was still alive. And now that both husbands are dead, she’s going around with someone new—a wealthy and well-respected someone. Badri Prasad, obviously.
If this femme fatale is not exactly doodh mein dhuli (literally ‘washed in milk’, for those who don’t understand Hindi; an idiom to indicate extreme virtue), neither is Dhani Ram. He’s been milking her for all he’s worth, blackmailing her and getting out lots of money over the years. And he doesn’t intend to stop, though the woman threatens him with vile consequences.
With the woman gone, Dhani Ram receives another visitor: Badri Prasad’s son, Vijay (Mehmood). Vijay is the proverbial playboy: his days and nights are spent in clubbing, chasing girls and generally enjoying life to the hilt. That, of course, takes more money than Vijay can wheedle out of his father, so he’s had to borrow money from Dhani Ram. Rs 4,000—plus Rs 3,000 interest (yes, Dhani Ram’s a past master at the art of usury). Now, Dhani Ram’s demanding the Rs 7,000 that Vijay owes him.
And Vijay, duffer that he is, had long ago signed his name on a blank piece of paper and handed it over to Dhani Ram. Theoretically, Dhani Ram can do just about what he pleases with that piece of paper—and Vijay, in hindsight, realises that he’s been a bit of an idiot. He goes rushing off to little sister Meena and begs her to do something.
Meena in turn goes to Kailash and spills the whole sordid story to him. Kailash promises to go that very night to talk to Dhani Ram. The problem is, Kailash has to go for a Bar Association dinner, so he’ll get free only after 11 PM. Never mind; even though he’ll be a little late, he’ll go meet Dhani Ram.
So, around 11.30 that night, Kailash goes to Dhani Ram’s house. Dhani Ram, about to have a glass of milk, leaves the milk on the table and opens the door to Kailash.
Kailash, by dint of being the Public Prosecutor, manages to put the fear of the law into Dhani Ram. The moneylender finally consents to hand over the paper on which Vijay had left his signature. He goes to the safe to fetch the paper, while Kailash wanders over to the window—and looks down to see Badri Prasad approaching the house.
This is odd. Why should Badri Prasad be coming to Dhani Ram’s house? Kailash guesses Meena might have told him about Vijay’s stupidity, but it seems unlikely.
At any rate, Kailash doesn’t want to be seen by his future father-in-law (not to mention the man who’s been in loco parentis to him all these years) in Dhani Ram’s house. So he slips into the adjoining room while Dhani Ram opens the front door.
Kailash hears Dhani Ram exclaim “Judge Sahib!”—and even before he’s finished asking why Badri Prasad has come, Badri Prasad slams a dagger into Dhani Ram’s stomach, killing the moneylender.
Leaving the body on the floor, Badri Prasad turns off the lights in the room and goes out the door. Kailash, emerging from the room in which he’d hidden, panics and runs away from the scene of crime. And a few minutes later, a petty thief called Kalia (Nana Palsikar, in a role that won him the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor) sees the open window in Dhani Ram’s house and shins up a pipe to commit what he thinks will be an easy burglary.
Only, he ends up even worse than Kailash. Because an unsuspecting Kalia, in the dark, steps into the puddle of milk that Dhani Ram’s falling body had created when it knocked over the glass standing on the table. Kalia slips in the milk and ends up face down on Dhani Ram’s body, his hands scrabbling for purchase on the hilt of the dagger.
Terrified, Kalia slides down the pipe, and finds himself, red-handed, in the hands of the patrolling police constable and Sub Inspector Das (Jagdish Raj), who immediately arrest him.
Kalia, pleading his innocence before SI Das, is unable to convince the cop. Kalia’s hands were bloody; his fingerprints were on the dagger; his footprints were in the spilt milk; and he was caught fleeing from the scene of crime. How can he not be guilty?
Kailash, as Public Prosecutor, now has to prosecute Kalia for a murder he knows Kalia did not commit. Where does Kailash’s duty lie? With the man who brought him up, and to whom he owes everything? Or to justice? As Kailash, driven by his own conscience, resigns as Public Prosecutor and takes it upon himself to defend Kalia—in a case, coincidentally, that comes up for hearing before Badri Prasad—the story unfolds. The prosecutor, now a Mr Khanna (Manmohan Krishna), brings forth evidences that seemingly irrefutably prove Kalia’s guilt.
And Kailash now has to battle both the piling evidence against Kalia, plus the fact that Badri Prasad—sitting unashamedly under the ‘Satyameva jayate’ (“truth must prevail”) banner of the courts, will not come forth to admit his own guilt. What’s worse, Kailash dare not admit to anyone the awful fact that only he has been witness to. Not even Meena, who has discovered that Kailash was in Dhani Ram’s house that fateful night, and has begun to suspect that Kailash himself is the murderer…
What I liked about this film:
The fact that it isn’t just a straightforward film of a murder; it has many layers and many facets. There is the dilemma and the psychological turmoil of Kailash, caught between his emotional ties to Badri Prasad and Meena on the one hand, and his conscience on the other. There are other considerations too: Meena’s, for instance, who is convinced that the man she loves is a murderer, and whom she will now do anything—even if it’s against the law—to save him. There is Kalia, pushed into a life of thievery because he is too poor to even educate his only son, for whom he lives.
And against these individual dilemmas are the greater ones that affect society: what is justice? A life for a life? (As a character says in a highly charged speech towards the end of the film, “A life for a life is not justice; it is revenge.”) What is justice based on? The testimonies of witnesses who are swayed by their emotions—their love or hate for the man in the dock—and by what they may gain or lose by the verdict? And is that justice to be left in the hands of a judge and a jury, who are after all fallible? Kanoon makes some interesting points that make one think beyond the mere plot of the film.
The use of silences. I am a firm believer in the ‘actions speak louder than words’ dictum, and Kanoon has some excellent examples of it. There is, for instance, the scene where Meena and Kailash go out to a restaurant. Kailash is worrying over the case, and Meena is scared and unhappy because she thinks Kailash is the murderer, even though she hasn’t asked him that in so many words. Kailash starts absent-mindedly playing with the dinner knife in front of him. Meena watches him, her expression growing steadily more disturbed, until she finally snatches the knife away from him. A symbolic act of taking away the dagger with which he—as she thinks—have killed Dhani Ram?
Which brings me to one more thing: the acting. It’s uniformly good. The only member of the cast to have won an award was Nana Palsikar, but the others, especially Ashok Kumar and Rajendra Kumar—are also excellent.
What I didn’t like:
Some of the scenes and the dialogues in the court made me wince. I don’t claim to be an expert on what goes on in courtrooms, but there are elements here—certain speeches, dramatic acts, etc—that seem either downright stupid or farfetched in a court of law.
But for a film that’s otherwise a very absorbing, interesting work, that’s forgivable.