Can we all agree that Hindi films have been looking just terrible lately? I’m not expecting Dil Se; even something framed and shot and designed with a little bit of style—Vikram Vedha, for instance—is all too rare now. Streaming shows are, occasionally, a little better, if only because some of the visually attuned Hindi directors have fled there. Caught in the middle are streaming originals, most of which have the feel of TV, the length of features, and the visual appeal of a harshly lit cardboard box.
Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai, a Zee5 original film, is a rather depressing example. A just-passable courtroom drama, it looks like an episode of Guilty Minds, only worse. Pause, if you will, at 1.03.30. In order to have the witness on the stand and lawyer PC Solanki (Manoj Bajpayee) in the same frame, the screen slopes from left to right. The décor is very Wicked Witch of the West: black and brown and green. Three tube lights sit distractingly at the top of the frame. The whirring blades of a fan are visible in the far-right corner. Nothing is clear, the eye goes nowhere, it’s a mess.
Sixteen-year-old Nu Singh (Adrija) accuses a powerful godman, whom everyone calls Baba (Surya Mohan Kulshrestha), of sexual assault. In a terribly stagey scene, her father discovers their lawyer is selling them out. Her case is taken up by Solanki, a self-described ‘Hindi medium’ lawyer from Jodhpur. The film is based, not officially but clearly, on the trial of Asaram, who was convicted of rape in 2018—the prosecutor in that case was one Poonam Chand Solanki. Nu is determined and has the support of her parents, but Solanki nevertheless advises they steel themselves for what’s to come. And sure enough, soon witnesses are being shot and smarmy expensive lawyers are being brought in to get Baba released on bail.
Director Apoorv Singh Karki and writer Deepak Kingrani wring some drama out of a small-town lawyer coming up against pompous big-city types. The problem is, it’s difficult to see Solanki as an underdog. There isn’t a single exchange where he doesn’t come out on top, whether he’s facing his townsperson Sharma (Vipin Sharma) or one of the hired guns. Even when he’s surprised in court—like when Baba’s legal team says he has a neurological disorder— Solanki only needs a short break to come up with an argument to defeat it. It’s just good sense to let Solanki dig himself out of a hole once in a while, but all he does is win.
Bajpayee floats above everything. His Solanki isn’t a vintage performance—the film isn’t sturdy enough to support one—but it’s the only thing to hang on to as a viewer. The film is built around him; we learn little about Nu beyond the assault that has derailed her life, or about her parents. Solanki’s junior counsel barely registers as a name, let alone a character. Vipin Sharma is a solid, restrained foil to Bajpayee, and the film resists making him into a monster. Given their chemistry, I’d have liked to see the two lawyers interact outside the court, but the only private lives glimpsed are those of Solanki, his mother and school-going son.
It's curious how often we're shown evidence of Solanki’s religiosity. Our first glimpse of him is during his morning prayers; in one of the last shots, he takes the blessings of a holy man. Talking to Nu on the balcony, as temple bells ring, he blows an imaginary conch and shouts “Har Har Mahadev”. His closing argument in court is a mythological parable. It feels like a balancing act: send a holy man to catch a (evil) holy man.
Solanki’s sense of mischief comes through in his interjections and deliberately unctuous manner. That he ends the case yelling like Sunny Deol in Damini is a warning about what to expect from this film. I’d urge you in the direction of another legal drama, a Tamil one, from last year. Gargi is as complex and discomfiting as Sirf Ek Bandaa is simple and sure of itself. It has a truly great lead performance. And it looks great.
Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai is on Zee5.