Criminal Justice: Pankaj Tripathi steals the spotlight in Hotstar crime thriller

Criminal Justice is the Indian adaptation of the 2008 BBC series by the same name, also adapted by HBO into a 2016 eight-part miniseries titled ‘The Night Of’. The Indian series, created by BBC Studios India/Applause Entertainment, is streaming on Hotstar under its original programming brand – Hotstar Specials, and has succeeded in creating considerable interest among digital viewership.

Aditya (Vikrant Massey) is a young middle-class boy leading a happy, uncomplicated life. He is adored by friends, plays football and occasionally helps his family by driving the family cab. One day, on insistence of his sister, he agrees to make a few trips during the surge hours. When he is about to finish his cab duty and head to a party, he finds a young girl named Sanaya Rath (Madhurima Roy) sitting in his cab who just refuses to cancel the trip despite his requests. A chain of events is triggered and Aditya ends up in Sanaya’s apartment later that night where they indulge in drugs and get intimate. Aditya’s otherwise normal life is thrown into a downward spiral when he wakes up the next morning to find Sanaya’s stabbed blood-soaked body in bed and has absolutely no recollection of any conflict.

As the story revolves around legal proceedings and Aditya’s transformation from a simple innocent boy to a hardened bully inside the prison, the presence of Madhav Mishra (Pankaj Tripathi), a small-time lawyer who is helping Aditya prove his innocence, adds humour to a slowly developing plot. Madhav is a resourceful, street-smart lawyer who goes out of his way to investigate the case, and through this selfless act, seeks cure to his long-seated guilt and a disease. His personal struggles add depth to his character and his backstory in later episodes explains his professional choices as he becomes the emotional support and the voice of reason in unsettling situations.

Making his web-series debut, Jackie Shroff, delivers a powerful performance in his role as an old-timer jailbird – Mustafa. He controls the illegal activities inside the prison and extorts money from inmates in return to providing them protection from bullies who are always on the lookout for fresh blood to exploit. Corrupt prison officers are a party to the thriving business of drugs, fight pits and mobile phones. Rampant corruption and the inhuman conditions inside Indian jails, that come under scrutiny often, are extensively displayed. It’s delightful to see Jackie Shroff in his quintessential Jaggu Dada element, playing an intimidating crime lord who takes Aditya under his wings and prepares him for prison life.

The limitations of the judicial system and biases in the police procedure are exposed as Aditya becomes a victim of the circumstances. As the cab company’s big shot lawyer Mandira Mathur (Mita Vashisht), who takes up the case pro bono, puts it – In the court, the police are going to narrate their story and we will narrate ours. The story that pleases the judge will win the case. A parallel media trial disrupts the lives of Aditya’s family members as they become the targets of public anger and negative press. Investigating officer Raghu Sallian (Pankaj Saraswat) considers it an open-and-shut case from the beginning and sees no merit in a deeper investigation. The plot builds upon such biases to justify the actions of the characters as well as their ignorance of inconvenient truth.

In the supporting cast, Nikhat Hussain (Anupriya Goenka) is a righteous lawyer and Mandira’s assistance who continues Aditya’s case after infuriating her senior. Nikhat and Madhav make an effective team and use their contrasting set of skills to discover missing pieces in the case and collect evidence with the help of officer Sallian to reopen the case. Their research leads them to a bigger scandal involving members of an institution with a direct connection with the case. The rest of the supporting cast lacks nuance and makes for the dull moments of the show. Little effort has gone into fleshing out the characters on the periphery which could have made the sub-plots more worthwhile.

Criminal Justice is an engaging crime-thriller primarily because of the excellent acting by the lead cast, even though some of the sequences seem too familiar and overused. Compared to the original British series, the 10-episode Indian version is spread too thin at places but compensates well by maintaining the intensity of the main plot and keeping the suspense going.

Photo: BBC Studios India/Applause Entertainment/Hotstar

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