A jar of Vaseline and an abusive shout-out from the bedroom are the key to this season’s Criminal Justice. Grim, taut, and utterly engrossing (I never once fast-forwarded the narration) Criminal Justice Season 2 is every bit as riveting as Season 1 where Vikrant Massey tasted the nightmare of the Indian prison system in all its stomach-churning glory. This time it is Anuradha Chandra (Kirti Kulhari), a devoted and dutiful beautiful wife to hotshot lawyer Vikram Chandra (Jisshu Sengupta) who is accused of stabbing her seemingly perfect husband to death. Our most favourite on-screen lawyer Madhav Mishra is pulled out of his wedding to handle the case.
Leaving behind in Patna his aggrieved wife (who complains that they haven’t been able to do their ‘First Night’) Madhav catches the first flight to Mumbai to defend the seemingly indefensible woman, a classic Hitchcockian murderess, so beautiful and haunted that only Kirti could play her.
What I loved about CJ2 is that it pulls none of the stereotypical stunts of a suspense thriller. No annoying red herrings, no false leads and no attempt to mislead us. From the start we know Anu is guilty. The question is not a straightforward one of guilty or not guilty. This time justice is not a court concern alone. Writer Apurva Asrani skillfully digs deep into the crevices that de-shape Indian marriages.
If Anuradha was being systematically driven beyond the brink by her bedroom brute of a husband, there is the other couple, two cops Harsh and Gauri (played with disarming naturalness by Ajeet Singh Palawat and Kalyani Mulay) who seem to be aligned on opposite sides in both their professional and domestic dynamics. On a lighter note, there’s the show’s eminently likable hero, the low-level lawyer Madhav Mishra with a neglected newly-married wife (played by a refreshingly unspoilt new actress Khusboo Atre). Of course, Madhav respects women. But unknowingly he has fallen into the trap of playing the traditional role of the domineering husband who dictates every move his wife makes by pretending to give her the freedom to do what she wants, until she breaks out with a flourish that hits Madhav and us in the solar plexus.
Madhav’s marital metamorphosis has its roots in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar although I’m pretty sure this couple has never heard of Ray or his masterpieces. Madhav’s very healthy professional relationship with his lawyer colleague Nikhat (Anupriya Goenka, charming) is also explored with something that most Indian films lack: an instinctive understanding of an asexual relationship between two colleagues of differing genders.
The ground rules and the background material of Criminal Justice 2 is solidly constructed. The scenes in the prison are suitably stark, with Shilpa Shukla putting in a persuasive performance as a headstrong inmate. The repeated shots of puke could have been avoided, though. Also, the background score seems partly inspired by Francis Lai’s score in Romeo & Juliet. At the forefront is the case… ah, the stabber wife Anuradha whose teenaged daughter Rhea (Adrija Sinha) is the only eyewitness to the crime. The young actress has a very tough role and she negotiates her trek through the tough turf with the expertise of a veteran. The show is in fact suffused with memorable performances — Deepti Naval and Mita Vashisht are a delight to watch together and apart, and I wish there was more of them—none more so than Pankaj Tripathi and Kirti who are the backbone, the soul of the plot. I can’t imagine what this season of Criminal Justice would have been without them. Ms Kulhari’s final lingering closeup of relief and happiness after eight episodes of trauma will stay with viewers for a while. She plays the murderess as a victim without a trace of self-pity. The series is stunningly assembled, often surpassing the original British series by adapting the British legal system to a homegrown reality. The cynicism, the corruption and the power of the privileged to subvert the law; it all comes together in ways that are both exciting and disturbing. What a wonderful way to end this confounding year!