Ajay Bahl made a splash in 2012 with B.A. Pass, an erotic neo-noir about a young man who is pushed into prostitution by his married lover. The movie was praised for its striking visuals and performances by Shilpa Shukla and Shadab Kamal, and Bahl appeared to be on the path of a fruitful career in Hindi films.
And yet, it has taken Bahl seven years to roll out his second feature. “I was writing movies nobody wanted to make,” he told Scroll.in. In the headline-baiting Section 375, a filmmaker is accused of raping a junior costume designer. The lawyers for the accused and the defendant, played by Akshaye Khanna and Richa Chadha respectively, battle it out in court.
The title refers to the provision in the Indian Penal Code that governs rape accusations. Written by Manish Gupta (The Stoneman Murders, Rahasya), Section 375 also stars Rahul Bhat, Meera Chopra and Dibyendu Bhattacharya. “Akshaye’s character is someone who is comfortable with the contradictions of his profession,” Bahl said. “Meanwhile, Richa is trying to find a balance between her idealism and ambition.” Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
What is your opinion on Section 375 of the IPC?
Gender neutrality is an issue, especially after the decriminalisation of 377 and the broadening of the definition of rape under the 2013 Criminal Amendment Act. How can the law presume that a man cannot rape another man or, for that matter, a woman cannot rape another woman?
Marital rape is still a grey area. During my research, I discovered that a lot of male as well as female lawyers felt that it could prove detrimental to the already crumbling institution of marriage, that it could be subject to misuse, and it also would be very difficult to prove in court.
Were you wary about making a film on such a deeply complex and sensitive subject?
Section 375 had everything going for it – a tight script, a fantastic production house, and a brilliant cast. When I was offered the film, Manish Gupta had already written the screenplay. But as every writer-director does, I made changes to the script to make the material my own. All of us were wary of coming across as insensitive, or worse, misogynistic. That was the real challenge, and I am happy to say that the film has a very objective gaze.
I also wanted to explore the judicial system in a holistic way. The judicial system worldwide is adversarial in nature, which is to say that one side has to lose in order for the other to win. Of course, no one wants to lose because winning means promotions, prestige and higher legal fees. Through my research, I realised that even judges wanted to win – give landmark decisions and get promoted to higher courts.
It was interesting to explore where justice fits amidst all this ambition. I was also particularly keen to get inside the head of a criminal defence lawyer – the general perception about them being that they defend the villains of society.
‘Section 375’ has the potential to generate heated online debate after its release.
I am not very active on social media. I really believe it to be the biggest modern-day evil, specially its use by the political class to misinform, lie, polarise and spread hate.
‘B.A. Pass’ was premiered at film festivals in 2012. What kept you away from making another film for seven years?
B.A. Pass had its Indian release on August 2, 2013, and Section 375 has been in the making for almost a year. It’s a relief that I have had five years of no output, instead of seven. Of course, immediately after B.A. Pass, I was offered Citylights, but by the time Ritesh Shah finished the script, I felt I could not be a part of the film anymore.
After that, Ritesh and I collaborated on a thriller set in the world of journalism, on which my inputs were mainly directorial. That took about a year. The script was adapted from the Somnath Batabyal novel The Price You Pay. We tried peddling it for another year-and-a-half, but found no takers.
Then, I co-wrote a noir piece along with Mayank Tiwari and Pawan Sony titled The Ladykiller, which again took a year, but that too languishes on my bookshelf to this day. The short answer to your question would be that I was writing movies nobody wanted to make.
In the Mohan Sikka story ‘The Railway Aunty’ on which ‘B.A. Pass’ is based, the protagonist is on the run. In your film, he dies in the end.
In the story, he ends up in a grave, which is a metaphor for death, or at least the death of all hope. I shot that ending but found it tepid. It worked wonderfully in the book, though. So I called Ritesh and told him that I was changing that ending, but exactly how I only figured out later.
Death always loomed large in B.A. Pass. We begin with the death of Mukesh’s parents, then we see him hanging around the graveyard a lot too. I saw B.A.Pass as a tragedy devoid of redemption and an endless downward spiral for the protagonist that ends as abruptly as it begins. Today, I might treat it differently, but at that time it felt correct. Also, I think I was seduced by the image of this boy falling through the neon signs of Paharganj.
Your film introduced a new character, played by Deepti Naval, who hires Mukesh, but is also motherly and sympathetic towards him.
I first thought of Deepti Naval’s character as sort of a damage-control character, because we were depicting women in an unflattering light. But later, as we were writing her in, I felt a beautiful irony seep in.
She is the only woman who is genuinely fond of Mukesh in almost a motherly way, but even she cannot help him out in his need for money. I felt her character added to the theme of society feeding on its weak in a bittersweet way.
The genders were flipped in the sequel ‘B.A Pass 2’, which you didn’t direct and nobody watched.
Neither did I! But what came to me later was that they had titled the film M.A. Pass, but when they could not find buyers, they changed that title a week before the release.