Bengali director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s first film in Hindi opens with a crime that echoes all the way till the end credits. Three women scurry back to their shared apartment in south Delhi, while another vehicle bearing many raging men heads to hospital. Minal (Taapsee Pannu) has smashed a bottle on the side of Rajvir Singh’s forehead after he tried to force himself on her, and Rajvir (Angad Singh Bedi) might lose an eye.
Rajvir’s eye survives, but he thirsts for revenge. Being the nephew of an influential politician, he uses the law against Minal and her flatmates Falak (Kriti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang). Minal is accused of attempt to murder and, along with her friends, of prostitution, and her own molestation complaint against Rajvir is dismissed as harassment. Forced to take the stand instead of Rajvir, Minal finds her reputation and future at stake, and it is good for her and this movie that Amitabh Bachchan’s world-weary lawyer is on her side.
Never once is Rajvir portrayed as a victim of female hysteria, and never once is it suggested that single women like Minal, who wear dresses and shorts, drink at social gatherings, and steal the occasional puff, deserve what comes their way. The coherence, intelligence and sensitivity with which Pink approaches tricky material is so rare in popular cinema that it is almost possible to ignore the occasional sermonising, tonal shifts, and reliance on a knight to save the distressed damsels.
The knight initially resembles the neighbourhood creep. His anti-pollution mask and deeper-than-usual baritone mark him as a cross between Darth Vader and Batman, and up until he swaps his tracksuit for lawyer’s robes, Deepak Sahgal (Amitabh Bachchan) is one of the many men who stare openly at Minal, Falak and Andrea simply because they can. Sahgal is supposed to be bipolar, but his despondency seems to be the result of age rather than his condition. Does he smile at all or approach anything resembling a manic state? One isn’t sure.
Sahgal actually is a vigilante put out to pasture, and together with the overhang of smog and the dull street lighting (the rich camerawork is by Avik Mukhopadhyay), the first hour proceeds like a nightmarish noir. As Minal’s landlord (Vinod Nagpal) is pressed into evicting his tenants, and the women are directly threatened, Roy Chowdhury and Mukhopadhyay create a very real sense of what it means to be at the receiving end of forces that are beyond the imagination.
The tone abruptly shifts in one snappy shot: the door opens to find Sahgal on the other side, all dressed up and ready to sally forth into battle. From there on, Pink moves into an exceedingly familiar world – the screen courtroom where the lawyer (often male) is saviour and truth-seeker, asking the questions that matter, presenting arguments that articulate the filmmaker’s philosophy, and lecturing the audience on justice and prejudice in the guise of cross-examinations.
Bachchan has two bristling scenes, both stellar examples of co-screen writer Ritesh Shah’s muscular dialogue and ability to simplify complex concepts such as consent, mitigating circumstances, and the culture of entitlement that produces sexual assaulters and rapists. In one, Sahgal jumps on the back of the elephant in the movie hall and asks Minal, “Are you a virgin?”
The other scene is of Rajvir’s cross-examination. Angad Singh Bedi’s finely nuanced performance reveals the attitude of his character – and a whole section of society – towards women like Minal, Falak and Andrea.
Although Pink is far removed from other such legal dramas, most famously Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Damini (1993), it shares with that film the stock character of the committed male lawyer who rescues the tarnished woman. Sahgal’s cross-examinations give the film its grandstanding moments. His rival is a caricature, and since he is played by Piyush Mishra, we get the movie’s major bum-note performance.
Taapse Pannu is not too convincing as the victim who becomes a survivor, and she is easily overtaken by Kriti Kulhari. The Shaitaan actress’s fabulously gutsy performance is a scene-stealer, especially when she turns the case on its head by giving the prosecution what it wants.
Pink is not Damini but it is not The Accused (1988) either. Despite its plainly feminist talk, it relies on Bachchan’s practised gravitas to demolish the belief that women of a certain type invite sexual assault. It’s hardly a coincidence that Sahgal’s paternalistic defence is delivered through the clipped tones of the former angry young man of 1970s cinema. Bachchan went from being an anti-establishment figure to a status quoist, but in his recent films Wazir, Ten and now Pink, he has come to represent an angry old man who wills himself into action since nobody else seems to be bothered.
The ploy partially works even if Sahgal’s character is overburdened with pathos – apart from bipolarity, he has an invalid wife (Mamta Shankar). Over Bachchan’s still upright shoulders, the filmmakers deliver a stinging indictment of society’s tendency to judge middle-class women who do not fit the stereotype of the rape victim.
The second minor portrait of aging is of Dhritiman Chatterjee’s judge. A lesser-known angry young man of the ’70s, Chatterjee still has a commanding presence, but the worrying tremor in his voice is an indication that the heroes of a couple of generations ago are now truly getting on.
Among the well-acted cameos is Vijay Varma’s lackey, who carries out Rajvir’s vengeance with chilling zeal. The choppy editing and the rushed and jumpy quality of a few scenes, however, suggest that some material and character layering were sacrificed in the interests of a manageable 136 minutes.
Pink balances its subtlety with its sloganeering through its grim and cynicism-free stand. The leitmotif of looking closely at a headline-grabbing issue is smartly tackled by the screenplay by Roy Chowdhury, producer Shoojit Sircar, and Ritesh Shah. From Rajvir’s one-eyed vengeance to Sahgal’s lugubrious gaze to the use of CCTV footage, Pink demands that sexual assault be looked at with sensitivity.
The end result is perhaps more righteous than intended. One of the most effective films on rape, the legal system, and the right to a fair trial is Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Jimmy Stewart’s down-on-his-luck lawyer chooses to defend an unsympathetic target of rape and convinces the jury to look beyond her clothes and manner and consider the crime that has been committed. In one of the best sequences, the complainant openly comes on to Stewart’s lawyer, who is briefly interested before good sense takes over. Pink’s issue-based approach prevents it from including such moments of sheer humanity. The movie considerably enriches the screen treatment of sexual assault, but the moment for fewer lectures and greater observation is still some years away.