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A Holy Conspiracy movie review: Soumitra Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah make this legal drama engaging


A Holy Conspiracy movie review: Despite being stodgy in parts with an inexperienced supporting cast, stalwarts Soumitra Chatterjee and Naseeruddin Shah keep us engaged in this film that talks of a composite India.

A courtroom drama in a small town called Hillolganj arrays two formidable old rivals against each other. Former Rajya Sabha member and much respected legal luminary Rev Basanta Kumar Chatterjee (Soumitra Chatterjee in his last completed role) finds himself face to face with the testy Anton D’Souza (Naseeruddin Shah), in a case which is intensely local but has repercussions for the world outside.

The man on trial is school teacher Kunal Joseph Baske (Sraman Chattopadhyaya) who refuses to teach a chapter from the Bible ahead of Darwin’s theory, and who draws a line at having to extol the virtues of ‘Vedic Science’. Who is at fault here? A teacher who doesn’t want to abide by the arbitrary rules of his institution, or an administration which is increasingly bowing to the political and social temperament of the people in power?The two lawyers are respectful of each other, but leave us in no doubt that they are engaged in a battle. Chatterjee speaks for a minority institution which is divided over how to define apostasy as opposed to the right to think. A thinking man is on trial here, thunders D’Souza: how can a true teacher tell his students about things that do not have any scientific basis? A Delhi-based journalist (Kaushik Sen) reports the proceedings for his outlet, stirring things up.

‘A Holy Conspiracy’, based on a play which was itself based on an incident of a similar nature which occurred in the US of the 1920s, comes off stodgy in places, its lines stilted. The filmmaking is basic and rudimentary. It’s also a talky movie, which is usually what legal dramas tend to be, and the performance of most of the supporting cast shows up their inexperience.

But what keeps us engaged are both the stalwarts. Soumitra Chatterjee’s illness is made space for by the script: his character keeps getting asked to rest a bit, and take his medication. There is power and grace with which Chatterjee delivers his lines. It is clear that he is a believer, and that his faith overcomes all doubt. Shah is as believable, and again real-life hews close to his performance. In the passionate way he defends his client, referring to his multiple identities — Tribal, Christian, Indian — you can almost feel Shah shedding his character’s skin, and being himself, as we have seen and heard him, in so many forums. He bangs the gong for a composite India where everyone has place, for the secular foundations of the constitution, and an education system saved from bigotry and obscurantism.

Will that India survive?

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