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Criminal Justice 3 Review: Not Even Pankaj Tripathi Can Rescue This Legal Drama From Its Own Tiresome Template

Directed by Rohan Sippy, the show has seven writers and the aesthetics of a Nineties' TV show
Criminal Justice 3 Review: Not Even Pankaj Tripathi Can Rescue This Legal Drama From Its Own Tiresome Template
AShweta Basu Prasad, still from Criminal Justice : Adhura Sach
  • Rahul Desai

  • Film Companion

Last Updated: 11.31 AM, Aug 30, 2022

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Director: Rohan Sippy
Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Shweta Basu Prasad, Swastika Mukherjee, Purab Kohli

The third instalment of this mysteriously popular Disney+ Hotstar series – titled Criminal Justice: Adhura Sach (unrelated to Goldman Sachs; Hindi for “Incomplete truth”) – is just as gaudy as the first two. A Nineties’ TV aesthetic continues to define the staging, writing, cinematography, direction and performances. The social themes are still superficial. The lack of geographical identity continues to endure; Mumbai is still a Generic Indian City despite a plot that relies on class divides. Everyone still behaves like a peak Madhur Bhandarkar character. The filmmaking is still lazy – an escape scene, for example, reveals people hiding behind a car with their backs turned to a security guard who can easily spot them. The narrative continuity and transitions are still clunky – moments don’t end, they are terminated. And, most of all, there is still no stillness. For a series about murder, trial and trauma, not a single scene stops moving. When someone drinks, the other asks why. When someone is bitter, he screams at the mirror. When someone breathes, the music tells us why. There is very little thinking, grieving or just being. 

Criminal Justice 3 hits the ground running – and is still running when it ends. A star child actress named Zara Ahuja (Deshna Dugad) is murdered after a promotional event at Madh Island. All the evidence points towards her teenage stepbrother, Mukul (Aaditya Gupta), a kid quickly established as a hateful, coke-snorting and sinister dudebro who resents Zara for being the apple of everyone’s eye. The series fetishises the heck out of the kid’s privilege just as it fetishises the humble Bihari roots of Madhav Mishra (Pankaj Tripathi), the recurring protagonist and small-time attorney hired to defend Mukul. The public prosecutor this time is Lekha Agastya (Shweta Basu Prasad), a London-educated lawyer who wants to shed the shadow of her famous father and make her own name in the noble world of criminal law. Lest we don’t sense her conflict, her father appears for a total of two scenes to scoff at her idealism. He sounds like a vintage Bollywood baddie (“you government servant!”) provoking a captive heroine, just as Mukul behaves like Rajesh Khanna’s bratty NRI son in Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999). But moving on. 

The premise itself is interesting (seven writers are listed across story, screenplay and dialogue credits) because it throws up an array of new-age talking points. For instance, Lekha’s desire to punish the boy and put him on trial as an adult is an extension of her inner battle against her own privilege; she hopes it will somehow exorcise her of her own entitlement. Then there’s Mukul’s stint at a juvenile correctional home, which completes the trifecta of justice systems after a driver (Vikrant Massey) was imprisoned in Season 1 and a woman (Kirti Kulhari) was jailed in Season 2. There’s the disintegrating nuclear family dynamic at the core of this tragedy – the biological parent of the slain child grows distant from the biological parent of the accused. There’s the trial-by-media angle. And there are the investigating cops, who mirror the confirmation bias of a nation (rich drug-loving kid? Let’s nail him!) but are also perceptive enough to remark that “A society sees their failure in a child’s death”. In other words, there’s enough on paper to suggest that Criminal Justice 3 has its pieces in place.

But the execution, once again, turns the show into a colossal waste of ideas. Despite featuring one case per season (unlike the case-per-episode format of the far more sophisticated Guilty Minds), it barely scratches the surface. For starters, the original BBC series, created by Peter Moffat, was conceived as a look at the ironies of the criminal justice system – where prison time kills the soul of the accused before their trial vindicates them. It’s not about whether they did it or not. But the moral binaries of Hindi cinema have translated this into a franchise about an underdog lawyer. There is a beginning and end, a clean conflict and a cleaner resolution, and jail becomes an instrument of catharsis rather than decay. The juvenile correctional facility in this season feels like an engineering college hostel run by a strict warden; the inmates ragging Mukul are cultural caricatures who speak like they’re auditioning for the next Munna Bhai movie. The bit parts, too, are robotic; the brief to everyone seems to be “you are the murderer”. It’s like the film-making purposely defies nuance to keep things ‘accessible’. 

The one-note portrayal of the rich is compounded by performances (especially Aaditya Gupta as Mukul) that parody privilege instead of humanising it. Even veterans like Purab Kohli and Swastika Mukherjee – as the stricken parents – are reduced to lines and live-action emojis; the script does not trust them to reveal the complexities of human nature without speaking. The script even reaches the brink of demonising Lekha Agastya because she’s the rival to the Jolly-LLB-esque hero; she often greets her counterpart with thinly-veiled contempt outside court. To Shweta Basu Prasad’s credit, though, she plays Lekha with the sort of self-awareness that frames her as the flawed hero of her own stuttering story. The final few episodes lack the maturity to explore the themes they pursue. Without giving it away, let me just say that the reaction shots in court are some of the worst I’ve seen in recent memory.

The desire to make this a Pankaj Tripathi show is understandable. He is now a bonafide streaming superstar, and though it can be argued that his turn as Madhav Mishra feels too easy – like it’s just another version of his real-life persona in interviews – even his ‘autopilot’ mode is more compelling than most others’ performance modes. Watching him never gets old. But the problem is the lens through which his character, Madhav, is designed. A lot of his scenes with his wife and brother-in-law are sweet in isolation, but they’re often used as flimsy comic interludes in a serious narrative. The otherisation is very apparent. Madhav is a small-town immigrant written for urban audiences, where his simpleton-like intellect outside court (his curiosity about the term “woke” in Season 2 gives way to “troll” in Season 3) is too different from his sharpness inside court. The writing is so desperate to paint him as an unlikely winner that it almost buries him with its patronising gaze.

There’s also the show’s compression of his character arc to serve a uniform template. Even as a Madhav Mishra spin-off, it falters. Despite winning two massive cases in the first two seasons against high-profile lawyers, Madhav is still a nobody at the beginning of this one. The Ahuja family hires his services because they are broke (which, in itself, is far from convincing). Instead of using different lawyers (as the BBC original does), the series force-fits the same lawyer with a recurring sense of anonymity. Madhav still operates out of a van; he still has that hustling mentality. His life is rebooted at the end of every case. This robs Tripathi of the agency to play Madhav as a person in a city rather than a unique selling point of a story. Resisting repetition is a challenge. I would know. I’m running out of ways to criticise Criminal Justice before it runs out of seasons.

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