Cast: Kirti Kulhari, Pankaj Tripathi, Jisshu Sengupta, Adrija Sinha, Anupriya Goenka, Mita Vashisht, Ashish Vidyarthi, Deepti Naval
Director: Rohan Sippy and Arjun Mukherjee
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Anuradha Chandra (Kirti Kulhari) stabs her lawyer-husband Bikram Chandra (Jisshu Sengupta) one night. The deed done, she calls emergency services and slips out of her plush apartment. The man lies bleeding in bed and their 12-year-old daughter Rhea (Adrija Sinha) is left all alone to deal with the aftermath.
The stage is thus set for Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors, an eight-part Hotstar Specials follow-up to the 2019 series. We know what has happened. The whys and wherefores remain a mystery until the very end because the accused clams up completely. For the prosecution, it is an open and shut case. For the defence counsels Madhav Mishra (Pankaj Tripathi) and Nikhat Hussain (Anupriya Goenka), there is more to it than meets the eye.
Directed by Rohan Sippy and Arjun Mukherjee - they helm four episodes each - and propelled by a clutch of flawless performances from Pankaj Tripathi, Kirti Kulhari and Anupriya Goenka, the series follows an emotionally fragile, painfully reticent woman caught in the pincers of the Indian justice and prison system.
The investigation, the charge-sheet and the sessions court trial stretch over a period of ten months. That is the time a woman takes to deliver a baby. In fact, a childbirth halfway through the show is a key plot point linked to a big reveal. One can see the twist coming from a long way off, which considerably undermines the element of surprise.
If you are looking for nail-biting suspense, Criminal Justice S2 might be somewhat underwhelming. But more than a thriller, the show is a relationship drama with multiple strands. That is how it works best. It is about the 'rebirth' not only of the protagonist - one of the more mercurial prison inmates. a minor character who gets considerable footage, is described as a zinda laash (living corpse) awaiting death (kabr ke intezaar mein) - but also of several other women who get a raw deal.
The slow-burning tale offers details in dribbles rather than hammer them in. It takes its time to peel off the layers that conceal the truth. Behind them is a web of lies and assumptions that is put to the test in a courtroom in the final two episodes.
Episode One provides a neat, cracking, interest-piquing build-up. It isn't pace that catches our attention but the steady tightening of the screws amid mounting intrigue. While the subsequent focus is firmly on the fate of the accused and how the law treats her, the show isn't a unidimensional affair.
Screenwriter Apurva Asrani adroitly indigenizes Season 2 of the award-winning British series scripted a decade ago by Peter Moffat. The adaptation retains its cultural specificity even as it expounds universal truths not only about abuse, crime and punishment but also about contemporary Indian society at large.
The prison where Anu Chandra (Kirti Kulhari) is lodged is a hellhole. The scarred woman has to fend off hostility from hardened inmates, many of them on trial for murder, and reckon with sickeningly unhygienic conditions. Hers is a nerve-wracking mental and physical ordeal. The bond she forges with two inmates, including the rasoi in-charge Ishani (Shilpa Shukla), are tenuous at best.
An advocate (a terrific Ashish Vidyarthi), who appears late in the drama, cites the Manusmriti to define a woman's role in the family and in society. "Main sirf desh aur dharm ki seva karna chahta hoon (I only want to serve my country and religion)", he says pompously. It is easy to see why he is determined to make an example of Anu Chandra.
Not everyone opposed to Anu is as antediluvian as this seasoned prosecutor, but all the others that the heroine has to contend with in the law enforcement system and in jail - see her act as blow to the 'natural' order of things.
The show opens with legal luminary Bikram Chandra winning a case on behalf of the wife and son of a lynched Dalit man. It is revealed a little later that this success has come in the wake of the advocate securing justice for a Muslim victim of violence. As he basks in the media spotlight, intercuts and brief exchanges between him and his wife reveal the latter's delicate state and point towards the likelihood of the relationship being riddled with riddles.
The show delves into several other marital relationships. Madhav's marriage, for one, appears to be a non-starter. His wife Ratna (Khusboo Atre) - he had left her on the wedding night and taken a flight out of Patna to take up Anu's case - lands up in Mumbai without warning. But the lawyer, otherwise a perfectly reasonable man, has no inclination to be the husband she desires.
Gauri Pradhan (Kalyanee Mulay) and Harsh Pradhan (Ajeet Singh Palawat), two cops, are a happily married couple posted in the same police station. Their equations, professional and personal, have a bearing not only on Anu Chandra's fate but also, obviously, on how their own relationship pans out.
Another marriage that is as good as over - we never see the man; he has left his wife for another woman - is alluded to a few times. The deserted wife is Nikhat's mom (Komal Chhabria). She still lives in hope of a reconciliation. The daughter, however, is determined never to let her estranged father back into their lives.
Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors adopts a subdued, deliberate rhythm and tone and presses them into the service of a plot that tosses and turns one way and then the other as the harried undertrial's lawyers take on their own fraternity and the Mumbai police on behalf of a woman who has all but lost the will to fight.
The controlled narrative flow and the refined acting allow the gravity and density of the tale to hold their course. Several of the key actors (Tripathi, Goenka, Mita Vashisht, Pankaj Saraswat) reprise the roles that they played in Season 1 and they know exactly what they have got to do in a lowkey crime drama.
As the self-effacing but unwavering Madhav Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi combines the earnestness of a man on a mission and the sense of humour of one not willing to take anything so seriously as to be blindsided.
Anupriya Goenka was great in Season 1. She is even better here. Playing lawyer Nikhat Hussain who joins Madhav Mishra to defend the accused, she matches her formidable co-star move for move, fleshing out a woman who fights not only to save a client but also to prove herself worthy of the black robe she dons.
Kirti Kulhari, playing the distraught, disoriented woman who has her minor daughter taken away from her and placed in a child welfare home where the girl is open to manipulation of her grandmother Vijji Chandra (Deepti Naval) and senior advocate Mandira Mathur (Mita Vashisht).
Anu Chandra could easily have turned into a caricature wallowing in misery but for Kulhari's intuitive, empathetic interpretation of a woman cornered - the audience is invested in her fate even when her impulses are difficult to understand. Apurva Asrani's screenplay bestows upon the character stoicism of the classic Greek tragic heroine kind.
As a legal drama, Criminal Justice S2 is pretty close to being top-notch. But it is its sharp-eyed exploration of women seeking equality in life and at work that elevates the series to a higher plane.