Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
When Sharmila (Usha Bane), the wife of the deceased Vasudev Pawar is questioned in court about the circumstances of her husband’s death, which the police have declared a suicide, her answers offer no evidence that corroborates this. No suicide note, no sign of depression, and no recollection of hearing the song or singer that the prosecutor claims abetted the suicide by encouraging sanitation workers to end their lives.
The defense lawyer then questions her about her husband’s life, in particular his working conditions. As she states that he had no safety equipment and relied on the movement of a cockroach or lack thereof to indicate the air quality inside the manhole, the response of the audience in which I saw the film, which included no one who had ever been inside a manhole was one of shock.
I was waiting for camera to pan the court and zoom in on the defense lawyer as he raised his voice in outrage, and demanded that the state immediately drop charges against his client and hold the Municipal Corporation responsible for the death of Vasudev Pawar and prosecute them for violation of the Prevention of Manual Scavenging Act and perhaps treat him and the audience to a refresher course on the provisions of this Act and the prevalence of manual scavenging and the plight of millions of sanitation workers lacking basic safety equipment.
This would have left the audience with a sizzling sense of satisfaction (like we get every time we watch Tom Cruise grill Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men). However this was neither Bollywood nor Hollywood. The defense lawyer makes a plea to release his client (on bail) but neither the judge nor prosecutor shows any interest in finding the real killer / cause of death, even after the judge dictates his summary to the court stenographer, hears the autopsy report, and tells the prosecutor directly, “your case is weak now.”
And the woman in the witness stand, who actually has the right to demand justice for her husband, is instead bossed around by the judge who tells her not to leave town without informing the court as long as the case is on.
She remains stoic, and also concerned about her ability to hold down a job if she has to keep on appearing in court.
I have much more to say about this movie but like the court, will adjourn for today.