On August 14, 2004, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, a security guard in Kolkata, was hanged on the charges of raping and murdering 18 year-old Hetal Parekh. Chatterjee was accused of raping and killing Parekh in her apartment on March 5, 1990, convicted and executed 14 years later after a lengthy trial.
The Bengali movie Dhananjoy, directed by Arindam Sil, revisits the trial and the accompanying media hysteria, which was led by political heavyweights, including former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s wife Meera. Chatterjee maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration, and legal activists pointed out that he had been convicted on the basis of dubious eyewitness testimonies and flimsy circumstantial evidence.
Arindam Sil, who has a penchant for turning out crisp and topical crime thrillers, says he was drawn to the subject because of the injustice meted out to Chatterjee and his family. The August 11 release stars Anirban Bhattacharya in the lead role. In a conversation with Scroll.in, Sil spoke about trial by hysteria and the importance of revisiting the case 27 years later.
What attracted you to the Dhananjoy Chatterjee story?
It actually happened through one of my friends, filmmaker Atanu Ghosh. Atanu emailed a few links to me and I found them interesting. I called him and said, wouldn’t it be nice if we made a film on this subject? He said, I want you to make a film on this, which is why I sent you this stuff.
Then, of course, I got into it. I started my research, started meeting people. I came across the book by professors of the Indian Statistical Institute. I met Dhananjoy’s family, their neighbours. I met people who testified in court at the time that Dhananjoy was a culprit but now said that they had appeared as false witnesses under duress. They also said that they had been made to sign on some papers that were in English.
Even as more such startling facts came up, I became more and more stubborn about making this film.
When was this?
This was about a year ago. The research went on for seven-eight months. During a conversation with Shrikant Mohta of Shree Venkatesh Films, I told him that a film must be made about this trial. Within five minutes, he agreed. So that’s how it started off. Then the whole process became quite painful… extremely.
In what way? Did you face any resistance?
No, there wasn’t any resistance. The process was painful because we were coming across facts that defied the norms. We came across a family that had been tormented for the past 27 years. Yet, when we visited their home, it seemed as though Dhananjoy had been hanged just yesterday.
The family was disturbed both by the media and the police. They live in absolute fear, every day. They still fear the taunts and bad mouthing by the media, neighbours and the entire village. Because I made a film about Dhananjoy, their neighbours heckled them, alleging that they had been paid four or five lakhs to agree to the film. They have not taken a single rupee from us.
Our society takes some responsibilities but also acts foolishly, and that’s why Dhananjoy was hanged. Even before the court judgement was out, society had decided. The chief minister [Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee] said, I will resign if Dhananjoy is not hanged. How could someone sitting in his chair say this? He had no right.
Everybody chanted, he is Dhananjoy, he is a rapist, kill him. There was no direct evidence, there were no conclusive circumstantial evidence. There was no semen found in the vagina, no tissue culture was done. There were a series of serious lapses and this family had no money to fight till the Supreme Court.
My heart goes out to Hetal Parekh. Hetal and Dhananjoy, and the things Hetal’s family had to go through. But that doesn’t mean that we will bury the truth.
Have you met Hetal Parekh’s family?
The family cannot be found. When I last heard, they were somewhere in Mumbai. I know Hetal’s father has passed away; her mother is not in her senses. His brother is now married but they cannot really be found.
Hetal Parekh’s family has been destroyed; Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s family is living in fear. Why do you think this film had to be made?
Firstly, even after 27 years, if there has been an injustice and if I can in my way contribute towards the truth about the family that has been disgraced, I have to do it.
Secondly, this is the ideal time to speak about a subject like this because the excessive condemnation of various issues that are happening in India nowadays is alarming. We are social creatures and have our responsibilities, so whatever happened 27 years back is being perpetuated with a different kind of aggression. The kind of celebrity bashing that goes on, just like that… Do you criticise yourself in the social media to that extent? Have you ever thought about how you would react if you were put in the same shoes?
Mass hysteria has to be curbed. It is high time that society stands together to do something, to understand what kind of wrongs mass hysteria can do.
Owners of media houses have told me that they felt disgraceful about going against Dhananjoy at that time. There were also a lot of rape cases happening and they wanted to make an example of him.
Would this incident, its coverage and the trial be treated differently now?
Yes, because we now have social media. But it can also swing both ways. We take our decisions quite hastily these days and we jump to conclusions. I was getting such wonderful compliments and then people said, I am a rapist because I am supporting a rapist. So this is our society. They are doing to me exactly what they did to Dhananjoy. But somewhere, I still have a lot of faith in the world and I think Dhananjoy would have got justice.
It seems the film has echoes of ‘Talvar’, made about the 2008 Noida double murders. That movie reopened the case file and suggested a miscarriage of justice.
No, no. My film is a courtroom drama, something that has not happened in Bengali cinema for a long time. I had to debate the topic and the best way was to set it in a courtroom.
The debate part is fictional and the rest based on true events?
Yes. Based on people we met. Firstly, the story that we all know has been shown. The story that emerged during our research has also been shown. We have placed both stories to the audience in the form of a debate and we are asking the audience to make up its mind.
Have you also spoken to lawyers and police officers for your film?
Of course. They encouraged me a lot, right from top police officials and government officials to advocates.
You like to bring popular literary characters to the big screen, including Byomkesh Bakshi and Shabor. You seem comfortable with crime and investigative procedures.
I am intrigued by the dark side of human nature and psychology – I love to analyse. It’s so easy to call somebody a criminal. But the psychology that goes towards making a criminal is another aspect. One of the dark characters in my film has been a victim of child sexual abuse, which kind of explains his criminal bent. Even if it is fictional, I like to deal with such subjects.
You have also been a co-producer and line producer for Hindi movies.
The first person who inspired me to become an actor was Anjan Dutt. We did the film The Bong Connection together, where I was the line producer. Later, Sujoy Ghosh came over to do Kahaani. At that time, Yash Raj Films was supposed to produce Kahaani. So the studio’s vice president, Ashish Sen, came over to discuss the budget and I told him that I would be able to do the film within Rs 6-7 lakhs. He said it was impossible.
Then, of course, Yash Raj Films did not produce Kahaani. But Ashish told me that if I could pull off the film on this kind of a budget, he would bring more films to me. We completed Kahaani in Rs 6.7 lakhs, and Ashish came back with Meri Pyaari Bindu.