A courtroom drama in a small town called Hillolganj pits two formidable old rivals against each other. Former member of Rajya Sabha and highly respected jurist Rev Basanta Kumar Chatterjee (Soumitra Chatterjee in his last completed role) comes face to face with the irritable Anton D’Souza (Naseeruddin Shah), in a case that is intensely local, but has implications for the outside world.
The man on trial is school teacher Kunal Joseph Baske (Sraman Chattopadhyaya) who refuses to teach a chapter of the Bible, anticipating Darwin’s theory, and who draws a line by having to praise the virtues of ‘Vedic Science’. Who is at fault here? A teacher who does not want to abide by the arbitrary rules of his institution, or a government that bends more and more to the political and social temperament of those in power?
The two lawyers respect each other, but leave no doubt that they are engaged in a battle. Chatterjee speaks for a minority institution divided on the definition of apostasy as opposed to the right to think. A thinking man is on trial here, thunders D’Souza: How can a real teacher tell his students about things that have no scientific basis? A Delhi-based journalist (Kaushik Sen) reports on the proceedings in front of his outlet, which shakes things up.
Based on a play that was itself based on an incident of a similar nature that occurred in the US in the 1920s, ‘A Holy Conspiracy’ comes across as stiff in places, the lines stilted. Filmmaking is simple and rudimentary. It’s also a high-profile movie, which is mostly what legal dramas are, and the performance of most of the supporting cast shows their inexperience.
But what keeps us engaged are both stalwarts. Soumitra ChatterjeeHis illness is made room by the script: his character is constantly asked to rest and take his medicine. There is power and grace with which Chatterjee delivers his lyrics. It is clear that he is a believer and that his faith overcomes all doubt. Shah is just as believable, and again real life comes close to his achievements. In the passionate way he defends his client, referencing his multiple identities – tribe, Christian, Indian – you can almost feel Shah shedding the skin of his character and being himself, as we’ve seen and heard him on so many forums. He sounds the gong for a composite India where everyone has a place, for the secular foundations of the constitution, and an education system rescued from bigotry and obscurantism.
Will that survive India?