2020s

Interview with ‘Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors’ Screenwriter Apurva Asrani

Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors

The Indian series Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors released on Disney Plus Hotstar in December 2020. The second installment begins with a heinous crime committed by the protagonist Anu Chandra (Kirti Kulhari), who happens to be a prosperous and respected lawyer. After she is arrested and kept in prison, a lawyer with minimal experience, Madhav Mishra (Pankaj Tripathi), is tasked with defending her. But Madhav faces a mammoth problem, as his client has already confessed and does not prefer to divulge any information behind her brutal motive. Madhav seeks the help of fellow lawyer Nikhat Hussain (Anupriya Goenka), and both of them jointly uncover information about domestic abuse. An engrossing social thriller, Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors addresses the notion that it’s easy to pass judgment against someone without making an attempt to unearth the truth hidden behind the façade of a happy family. I recently spoke with screenwriter Apurva Asrani and discussed his creative choices for such an absorbing piece of work.

Dipankar Sarkar: The original BBC series is five episodes, whereas the Indian version is over eight episodes. Could you briefly share your process for the adaptation?

Apurva Asrani: This was an unusual adaptation. After the success of Criminal Justice season 1, the producers, Applause and BBC, were keen to make the show into a franchise. Our show is based on Criminal Justice season 1 UK (2008) by Peter Moffat but includes characters like Madhav Mishra and Nikhat Hussain from India’s Criminal Justice season 1 (which was an adaptation of The Night Of), and it has a host of newer characters. In essence, it is the coming together of three very different universes. Sameer Nair [the Applause CEO] was confident that this was achievable, and I was excited to accept the challenge.

In the UK version, the main characters’ families are not involved in their lives. We thought that in a family-oriented India, that alienation would be impossible, so we added several family characters. Also, our spaces, like our jails and our courts, are more populated than in the UK. Hence we added more characters there. Another thing is that the UK series came out more than 12 years ago, much before #MeToo changed the landscape for women’s rights. We needed to be cognizant of this new empowered world.

DS: The episodes provide viewers with a tough stature of the Indian legal system. The way the lawyers, police and the children welfare center operates in cases like the one presented is unique in its depiction. Did you conduct any research to provide authenticity to the script?

AA: Yes, we had an opportunity to tell stories within the stories, to shine a torch on the way our system actually operates. While there are many fault lines in the system, there is also a lot of good that happens, like the child welfare committee’s involvement in police procedures. Our research person, Dipti Nagpaul, met cops, lawyers, prisoners, mental health professionals and backed up our adapted story with facts. Many a time, the research would lead us to newer subplots. BBC is known the world over for telling well-researched, informative stories, therefore producer Priya Vagal was very particular about the show being authentic.

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Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors

DS: The protagonist Anu is hailed as a criminal even before the case goes to trial. The narrative emphasizes much of what happens outside in context to the chain of events that occur within the courtroom.

AA: We live in a world where public perception strongly influences a trial. Social media is a powerful tool that can be used to impact an election or a war. We were mindful of this while writing the series, and this is another aspect we added to the story. We explored how a woman is character-assassinated even before she stands trial. This is something not unusual in our times. Madhav Mishra laments to his gullible wife that news stories are broken without any proof. There is no time for investigation, as they all need to break the story before another media house does. And sadly, the public thinks that if it’s on the news, it must be true. We needed to bust this myth.

DS: The lawyer Madhav Mishra is witty, intelligent and firmly believes in the professional dictum of “not guilty until proven,”  and he will leave no stone unturned to prove the innocence of his client. Tell us about his characterization?

AA: Madhav is a decent man. He is educated but not over-educated — which means that there is room for growth, for the evolution of thought. He is unafraid to accept that he knows very little about women, about domestic abuse or even about the world of city-bred”‘insiders.” He is the proverbial “outsider.” His lack of finesse and his vernacular education makes him nervous to take the lead against city-bred lawyers. But he is persistent and will do what it takes to overcome his lack of confidence. He is beautifully flawed and very human. Also in this season, we explored how he might be a virgin and doesn’t know if he will be able to satisfy his bride. Only a very evolved actor like Pankaj Tripathi could pull all these complexes off and still come across as so lovable.

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Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors

DS: Madhav Mishra’s relationship with his wife Ratna (Khushboo Atre) is somewhat complicated. He neither reciprocates her physical and emotional advances nor does he inform his colleagues about the marriage. But in the final episode, his attitude towards her changes. What was the purpose behind such a trait?

AA: We wanted to show that patriarchy is embedded deep into our society and that no one is exempt from it. Not even the nicest, most well-meaning men know how to treat their wives as equals, because they have not seen any precedent for it. But the special thing about Madhav is that he wants to learn, he wants to change, he wants to evolve into a more civilized man of our times. He starts off by seeing Ratna as a burden, but when she demands respect for their marital bond, he cannot fight it. He becomes awed by her wisdom and by her faith in the institution of marriage. This track was written to show that not all abusive marriages must end in divorce. Some abuse happens unknowingly, and that if a mirror is held up, both husband and wife can course-correct and find respect. I love this track. Khushboo Atre (Ratna) brought so much love and dignity to it.

DS: Is Nikhat Hussain a foil character who not only helps Madhav to extract necessary information relevant to the trial but also provides a sympathetic and deeper character development and understanding of the plight of Anu?

AA: Usually in a show headlined by a popular actor like Pankaj Tripathi, one expects the climax, in our case — the final summation — to be given to him. But that would have defeated the purpose of our piece. Criminal Justice season 2 is an ode to the strong women of India — to their agency. How is Madhav, a man who doesn’t understand his own wife, going to guess that Anu is being abused? It would take the instinct of a woman who has experienced abuse to see through Anu’s confusion. That’s why, for Nikhat, we created an absent father, who lives with his second, much younger wife. He treats Nikhat’s mother like a doormat, and Nikhat cannot stand the disrespect. So when Nikhat meets Anu, she just knows instinctively that Anu is also a victim of abuse. I was also nervous to give Nikhat the final summation in the climax episode. What would the producers think? What would Pankaj Tripathi think? Would the massive fanbase that Mr. Tripathi enjoys think? Fortunately, Sameer Nair and his creative team at Applause were on the same page as me about giving Nikhat the lead. Pankaj Tripathi gracefully bowed to the potential that Nikhat’s character showed, and Anupriya Goenka recognized the opportunity and gave it her all. She has knocked it out of the park this season.

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Pankaj Tripathi and Anupriya Goenka in Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors

DS: Advocate Dhipen Prabhu (Ashish Vidyarthi) is a religious individual who does not hesitate to quote verses from the Indian religious text Manusmriti during the trial and has a very commanding and strong authoritative personality. He even misuses the social media platform shrewdly. What were the aspects you thought worth considering while shaping the character?

AA: In Nikhat, we wrote a character that vehemently opposes the Islamic tradition of polygamy. In Prabhu, we wrote a character who quotes the Manusmriti in court. We are holding a torch to every member of society, and to every community. The rot of patriarchy and misogyny has seeped in everywhere. It goes beyond religion and community, and no one is exempt. That’s what Prabhu’s character shows.

DS: The universe of the series is populated with female characters, and it explores what women face daily, sometimes even for years together. They fight misogyny, sexism and discrimination at every step, and at times become a victim of gaslighting and emotional abuse too. Such aspects become the recurrent theme of the series. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

AA: This show was that rare opportunity to explore our world and our homes, from the point of view of the woman. By populating it with diverse characters with completely different stories, we were able to show that misogyny and sexism exist in all kinds of homes. No woman watching the show can say this doesn’t happen to me. No man watching the show can say my conscience is clear. That was the idea; to hold up a mirror to everyone. And though this is a show about women, one must give credit to all the men that made it happen. From Sameer Nair at Applause to Sameer Gogate at BBC, from creative producers Siddharth Khaitan and Rajesh Chedda to the wonderful directors Rohan Sippy and Arjun Mukherjee, this bunch of boys were able to put our women first, and we all learned much more about gender equality through the process.

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Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors

DS: Two married police officers are working on the same case, which also affects their personal lives in due course of time. Madhav’s newly married life is also going through some sort of difficulties. And in the final episode, Nikhat’s mother wants a divorce from her bigamous husband. Do the subplots play a sharp contrast to Anu’s marital life?

AA:Yes, of course. What I love the most is that we were able to show that an educated, affluent, city-bred woman like Anu can be so weak, while a semi-educated, village girl like Ratna could have more agency. It is a point to ponder.

DS: As the series ends, it becomes evident that prejudiced society doesn’t check their facts straight before imprudently searing an individual’s reputation based on superficial evidence and preconceived notions. What happens behind the closed doors of a pretendedly perfect family life is often deceptive. Do you think a series like this can be a part of discourse regarding the position of women in our society?

AA: The show has done very well. It has benefited from being on a popular platform like Hotstar and having a successful predecessor like Criminal Justice season 1. The reviews have been great, but our biggest success is in the discussion we see happening on social media platforms. So many women are coming out with their stories of abuse. So many are admitting to having been ignorant about their role in propagating patriarchy and misogyny. Kirti Kulhari did a brilliant job by playing the difficult role of a victim of abuse, but what is more respect-worthy is how she is now spearheading awareness campaigns about domestic abuse today. Mental health experts are quoting our series. At the end of the day, the success of Criminal Justice Behind Closed Doors lies in its passionate teamwork.

Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.

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