Form: Naseeruddin Shah, Soumitra Chatterjee and Anashua Majumdar
Director: Saibal Mitra
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of 5)
The problems at the heart of A holy conspiracy are local and timeless, but the film’s overarching theme is of national, simultaneous importance. Though sometimes a little aware of the weight of its arguments, it uses narrative methods that draw as much from cinema as they do from theater to emphasize the many tyrannies unleashed by the powerful to suppress the petty mutinies of the oppressed.
The Bengali film, written and directed by Saibal Mitra, uses several other languages (English, Hindi, and Santhali) to tell the story of a tribal man imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The plot revolves around two seasoned lawyers in a bitter, intense courtroom battle over the issue of a teacher’s right to choose reason over faith and encourage his students to follow suit.
With powerful renditions of the late Soumitra Chatterjee (in his last completed film role) and Naseeruddin Shah and pivotal supporting acts from Kaushik Sen and Amrita Chatterjee, the film achieves much more than a legal drama usually does. It dares to put ‘New India’, with its staunchly regressive ideals, in the dock as it tries to hold a conversation about the ills of fanaticism.
At one point during the hearing, the trial judge (played by Jagannath Guha, one of the dialogue writers) says, “Thinking is not in court.” Prosecutor Rev. Basanta Kumar Chatterjee (Soumitra Chatterjee) states: “A man is on trial”. “A thinking man,” replies defender Anton D’Souza (Naseeruddin Shah).
The context of the drama thus firmly framed, A Holy Conspiracy conveys its ideas extensively. That’s not surprising, considering it’s a loose adaptation of Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play written by Jerome Lawrence and Jacob E. Lee in response to the McCarthy-era witch hunts. It was filmed for the screen as early as 1960 by Stanley Kramer, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as the two opposing lawyers. In 1999, a made-for-television film starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott starred.
The piece, in turn, was inspired by the real-life “Scopes Monkey” trial of 1925, in which a schoolteacher was sued for teaching evolutionary theory and questioning creationism. That’s exactly what Kunal Joseph Baske (Sraman Chattopadhyay) is accused of being accused of by a school in Hillolganj, a small Christian-majority town on the Bengal-Jharkhand border.
Rev. Chatterjee, former Rajya Sabha member, legal leader and minority rights crusader, readily agrees to become the prosecution lawyer. He believes his religion is under threat from a rebel and needs a strong defense.
A chatty journalist from Delhi (Kaushik Sen), who has broken the narrative of the tribal teacher’s plight, travels to Hillolganj to arrange legal aid for the man with the help of another local teacher (Subhrajit Dutta). The duo approaches retired Supreme Court attorney Anton D’Souza. The latter, who has been away from the courts for five years and lives among the region’s tribes, is reluctant to make a comeback.
D’Souza, aware of the challenges the tribe faces in a society bent on erasing their language, culture and religion different from that of the majority, finally gives in. “The rise of fanaticism, a phenomenon never seen before in (free) India, (has) prompted me to return,” he says before a 13-year-old student of the suspect enters the witness stand.
The prosecution pleads for exemplary punishment for Kunal Baske for not only ignoring a rule that makes it mandatory to teach the Book of Genesis before introducing Darwinism to his students, but also for inciting violence and arson against the institution where he is a biology teacher.
But this confrontation between the two advocates, and between Kunal and the school, is only the outermost layer of the film. At its core is a larger conspiracy to persuade a minority institution to praise the achievements of Vedic “scientists”. A questionable book has crept into the school curriculum under pressure from powerful circles – it is represented by the panchayat chief who has played into the hands of the majority of powers to increase his political fortune.
“This country has gone mad,” says the cynical journalist. In court, Kunal, who has languished in prison for two years, says,’ ‘To the school, I’m an atheist and an apostate; I’m a Maoist in the police force.” Even his intrepid fiancée Reshmi Mary Mal (Amrita Chatterjee), daughter of the local pastor, one of the plaintiffs, can only live in hopes of a miracle.
A holy conspiracy refers to religious/national icons such as Lord Ram and Mahatma Gandhi – the former takes the form of a bahrupiya, the latter sits lifelessly etched on a wall outside the courtroom’s main entrance – in indirect ways as it draws our attention to a ruse to to rob the tribes of their identity. “I am a Santhal, an Adivasi. My religion is Sarna,” the accused claims when someone tries to co-opt him into the majority group.
Each of the protagonists of the film speaks at least two languages on screen – Soumitra Chatterjee, Kaushik Sen and Amrita Chatterjee alternate Bengali and English while Naseeruddin speaks English, Hindi and some Santhali.
Ever since A holy conspiracy Strongly emphasizing the right of the minorities and people of endangered cultures to protect their language and religious mores, the film would have dealt a much bigger blow if the role of the tribal defendant had gone to a Santhal actor. He could have delivered the character’s final submission to the bank in his own language.
A holy conspiracy is provocative and blunt. But it also approaches its sensitive subject with responsibility and caution. With two high-calibre actors giving voice to the two main points of view in the debate that the film dramatizes, the occasional chatter doesn’t weigh too much.
Even if a few scenes seem a little staged and pompous, A Holy Conspiracy doesn’t lose its power, because here’s a film that dares to speak its mind at a time when there’s nothing braver than being defiantly contrarian. It asks questions and offers no easy answers, but leads the battle to a logical conclusion.
A holy conspiracy is an important film because it holds up a mirror to the times we live in – and the future we can stare at.