For a while now, we’ve craved a great Manoj Bajpayee performance in theatres. Sonchiriya was a lifetime ago, Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari droll but undistinguished. Instead, all his recent feats have been on the web; season two of The Family Man, Rayand Gulmohar. He has found a new home on OTT (and a dedicated audience base). The exhibition arena is still wobbly, so it makes sense for Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai — a debut feature by Apoorv Singh Karki — to arrive directly on ZEE5. Nevertheless, I wish the film had secured a theatrical release. A courtroom drama of the old school, it features a blazing, live wire Bajpayee; not the sort of performance to be savoured on laptops and phones.
Bandaa begins with multiple disclaimers, including one that says, “The film is a dramatisation of events.” By the time a devastated young girl has recorded her statement in Delhi and a bearded saint with a beatific smile is picked up in Jodhpur, we know what events are being traced. In 2013, self-styled godman Asaram Bapu was arrested for raping a 16-year-old minor in one of his ashrams. After five years, he was held guilty and imprisoned for life. It was a landmark case under The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act; PC Solanki, a small-time Jodhpur lawyer who went toe-to-toe with formidable legal bigwigs, became its heroic face.
Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai (Hindi)
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Surya Mohan Kulshreshtha, Adrija Sinha, Vipin Sharma
Director: Apoorv Singh Karki
Run-time: 132 minutes
Storyline: A small-time Jodhpur lawyer takes on an influential godman for raping a 16-year-old girl
In the film, Asaram isn’t referred to by name (the character, played with creepy equanimity by Surya Mohan Kulshreshtha, is simply addressed as ‘Baba’). PC Solanki, however, is PC Solanki. Early on, he’s approached by the victim’s parents to fight their case. Their previous lawyer was outed negotiating a bribe with Baba’s cohorts, a tactic that will recur throughout the film, along with witness intimidation, vitriolage, and open murder outside court. “There will be many dangers, difficulties,” Solanki (Manoj) forewarns his clients and himself. He’s fully aware of the implications of going against a dangerous and influential cult; he has a young son and an aging mother at home.
The courtroom scenes burn bright with logic and repartee. Writer Deepak Kingrani deserves praise here, sticking close to the facts of the original case instead of embellishing wildly. With Baba in judicial custody, Solanki squares off against a battery of celebrity defenders. There is a burst of legal chicanery: at one point, a false school certificate is furnished to discredit the victim’s age, so POCSO charges can be removed. Elsewhere, a bogus health condition is concocted to move the defendant abroad. Solanki foils these manoeuvres with a slew of clever arguments, appeals and analogies. His patter in court is calm and persuasive, yet he isn’t immune to the occasional theatrics, loudly slamming his desk while mimicking a hotshot opponent.
“This is a matter of our beliefs,” says one of the lawyers in Bandaa. “Bhakti is absolute devotion,” Baba himself insists. The film, while navigating a story about exploitation via blind faith, makes several concessions to faith itself. Solanki is portrayed as a devout Shiva-worshipper; when the survivor, Nu (Adrija Sinha), tells him that everyone views her now as a sinner, he responds by galvanising her with a chant of ‘Har Har Mahadev’. For the day of the verdict, Solanki wears a small tilak to court; his concluding speech — an impassioned riff on the mythological gradations of sin, delivered with gusto by Bajpayee — invokes the Ramayana. These scenes have become essential in winning over an audience in hypersensitive times (In Mulk, too, Taapsee Pannu’s lawyer in an interfaith marriage was conspicuously devout).
Bajpayee furnishes his character with both vulnerability and grit. There is a poetry to his patter; I was delighted every time he said ‘ janaab’ in court. We get variations on the Manoj Bajpayee stare: piercing and resolute when arguing his point, softly beseeching when haggling with judges, distant and wistful when he’s all by himself. In court scenes, he finds a rough camaraderie with Vipin Sharma, who paints a pragmatic (and occasionally dignified) portrait of a criminal defence attorney.
Apoorv Singh Karki has directed shows like Aspirants and Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. With Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai, he manages to tell a gutsy story without making it didactic or verbose. Despite a pumped-up narrative style, the film looks realistic, shot in life-size courtrooms and streets. And there are some memorable juxtapositions, all of them featuring Solanki. In one, he’s lost in a sea of angry devotees; in another, he’s a lone figure gazing up at a fort. The most striking one comes later: a father and child escaping on a scooter, with a temple in the background.
Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai is streaming on ZEE5.