Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Soumitra Chatterjee and Anashua Majumdar
Director: Saibal Mitra
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of 5)
The issues at the heart of A Holy Conspiracy are local and timeless, but the film's overarching theme is of national, contemporaneous import. Though a little too conscious of the weight of its arguments at times, it employs narrative methods that draw as much from cinema as they do from theatre to highlight the many tyrannies that the mighty unleash to suppress the little mutinies by 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 jailed on trumped-up charges. The plot centres on two seasoned advocates in a bitter, intense courtroom battle over the question of a teacher's right to choose reason over faith and encourage his wards to follow suit.
Riding on powerful performances by the late Soumitra Chatterjee (in his last completed film role) and Naseeruddin Shah as well as crucial supporting acts by Kaushik Sen and Amrita Chatterjee, the film achieves much more than a legal drama usually does. It dares to put "New India", with its fervidly regressive ideals, in the dock while it seeks to further a conversation on the ills of fanaticism.
At one point during the hearing, the sessions court judge (played by Jagannath Guha, one of the dialogue writers) says: "Thinking is not on trial." The prosecuting lawyer Rev. Basanta Kumar Chatterjee (Soumitra Chatterjee) asserts: "A man is on trial". "A thinking man," retorts defence counsel Anton D'Souza (Naseeruddin Shah).
The context of the drama thus firmly framed, A Holy Conspiracy delivers its ideas verbosely. That is hardly surprising given that it is a loose adaptation of Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play written by Jerome Lawrence and Jacob E. Lee as a reaction to the McCarthy era witch hunts. It was adapted for the screen as early as in 1960 by Stanley Kramer, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March playing the two opposing lawyers. In 1999, a made-for-television film starred Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.
The play was, in turn, inspired by the real-life 'Scopes Monkey' trial of 1925 in which a schoolteacher was hauled before the law for teaching the theory of evolution and questioning creationism. That is precisely what Kunal Joseph Baske (Sraman Chattopadhyay) is accused of by a school in a small, Christian-majority town called Hillolganj, on the Bengal-Jharkhand border.
Rev. Chatterjee, former Rajya Sabha member, legal luminary and crusader for minority community rights, readily agrees to be the prosecuting lawyer. He believes his religion is under threat from a rebel and needs a stout defence.
A chatty Delhi journalist (Kaushik Sen), having broken the story of the tribal schoolteacher's plight, travels to Hillolganj to organise legal aid for the man with the help of another local teacher (Subhrajit Dutta). The duo approaches retired Supreme Court lawyer Anton D'Souza. The latter, away from the courts for five years and living among the tribals of the region, is reluctant to make a comeback.
D'Souza, who is aware of the challenges that the tribal face in in a society bent upon erasing their language, culture and religion that is distinct from that of the majority, eventually relents. "The rise of fanaticism, a phenomenon never seen before in (free) India, (has) impelled me to return," he says before a 13-year-old student of the accused takes the witness stand.
The prosecuting lawyer advocates exemplary punishment for Kunal Baske for not only flouting a rule that makes teaching the Book of Genesis before introducing his students to Darwinism mandatory but also inciting violence and arson against the institution where he is the biology teacher.
But this confrontation between the two advocates, and between Kunal and the school, is only the outer layering of the film. What lies at its core is a larger conspiracy to browbeat a minority institution into extolling the achievements of Vedic 'scientists'. A questionable book has been sneaked into the school curriculum under pressure from powerful quarters - it is represented by the panchayat chief who has played into the hands of majoritarian forces to further his political fortunes.
"This country has gone mad," says the cynical journalist. In the courtroom, Kunal, who has languished in jail for two years, says" "To the school I am an atheist and an apostate; to the police I am a Maoist." Even his fearless fiance Reshmi Mary Mal (Amrita Chatterjee), daughter of the local pastor, one of the plaintiffs, can only live in hope of a miracle.
A Holy Conspiracy makes references to religious/national icons such as Lord Ram and Mahatma Gandhi - the former takes on the form of a bahrupiya, the latter sits lifeless etched on a wall beyond the courtroom's main entrance - in indirect ways as it directs our attention to a ploy to deprive the tribals of their identity. "I am a Santhal, an Adivasi. My religion is Sarna," asserts the accused when somebody seeks to co-opt him in the majority fold.
Each one of the film's principal actors speak at least two languages onscreen - Soumitra Chatterjee, Kaushik Sen and Amrita Chatterjee alternate between Bengali and English, while Naseeruddin speaks English, Hindi and some Santhali.
Since A Holy Conspiracy strongly stresses the right of the minorities and people of endangered cultures to protect their language and religious mores, the film would have packed a much bigger wallop had the role of the tribal defendant gone to a Santhal actor. He could have delivered the character's final submission before the bench in his own tongue.
A Holy Conspiracy is provocative and blunt. But it also approaches its sensitive subject matter with a sense of responsibility and caution. With two high calibre actors giving voice to the two principal viewpoints in the debate that the film dramatizes, the occasional garrulity does not weigh too heavy.
Even when a few of the scenes seem a touch staged and stilted, A Holy Conspiracy does not lose its power because here is a film that dares to speak its mind at a time when there is nothing more courageous than being defiantly contrarian. It poses questions and does not offer easy answers but takes the fight to its logical conclusion.
A Holy Conspiracy is an important film because it holds up a mirror to the times that we live in - and the future that we might be staring at.