What happens when someone is wrongly accused and sentenced for a murder?
B.R.Chopra’s gripping 1960 whodunit courtroom drama Kanoon not only questions capital punishment but also examines the place of individual wants/ needs and how they fit within society’s aim of providing justice to all members equally.
Intriguingly, the movie starts with a murder. The second scene shows the murderer in a crowded court, lashing out at Badri Prasad (Ashok Kumar), the judge who pronounced him guilty: “You cannot sentence me again. I have already served time for murdering that man.”
He then drops dead, sparking a sensation in the corners of legal world. And you are hooked.
Post the court incident, Badrinath has a passionate discussion with two colleagues about the controversial case and in a friendly challenge suggests that anyone can get away with murder, almost.
Next, a local money lender Dhaniram (Om Prakash) is killed and a petty thief Kaalia (Nana Palsikar) is arrested. All clues lead to Badrinath being the killer. The eye witness is his own protégé Kailash Khanna (Rajendra Kumar) who also happens to be his daughter Meena’s (Nanda) fiancé. Also in the picture are two other characters linked to Badrinath: an unknown lady (Shashikala) seen romancing him and his son Vijay (Mehmood) who is facing money troubles.
It is a little dated but the story has enough substance to hold interest even today. Designed as a thriller, Chopra builds each and every scene to surprise and heighten the viewer’s curiosity: the casual discussion between the lawyers, Dhaniram’s murder scene (fabulously picturised by cinematographer M.N. Malhotra), Kailash witnessing the murder, the morning after, the dinner with his fiancéé where he plays with the knife, his diary scene with Badrinath plus the courtroom scenes. The most talked was the five-minute ticking clock scene where Kailash expects the killer to confess in the courtroom.
Every character has a motive and a choice to make, not always right but justifiable from their point of view. Kailash’s struggle with speaking the truth at the risk of implicating his mentor and father-in-law, Meena’s impulse of protecting her fiancé and the sad plight of seemingly innocent Kaalia.
This was also Hindi cinema’s first and Indian cinema’s second songless movie. It did feature an innovative Indo-Western ballet performance with instrumental music by Salil Choudhury.
To the jaded viewer in us, the end may appear a bit predictable but back then it surely must have been an unexpected twist for the audience.
Look forward to some excellent performances. Nanda is memorable in a small, significant role as Kailash’s fiancé. At one point she assumes he is the killer and breaks the law so she can get him acquited. Rajendra Kumar is conscious and superbly effective as the honest advocate: he is shown in a conflicted state throughout and portrays the dilemma of his character effectively.
Nana Palsikar represents the under-represented class of society to perfection. Justice to him just means food and education for his son – everything else is negotiable where he comes from.
No doubt that Ashok Kumar holds the movie together with his effortless performance, balancing the good, the bad and the ugly and keeping the viewer in suspense about whether he is innocent or guilty.
The movie is proof of Chopra’s expertise in portraying social issues with a unique humane twist.
cinemaspotter rating: 4.5 out of 5