In 2016 came a movie that stated the obvious – when a woman said no to a sexual encounter, she actually meant it.

Merely three years after Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink, and in the wake of the Me Too movement, arrives a film which suggests that “no” could mean “yes”, “maybe” or, worse still, “gotcha”. Section 375, about a filmmaker accused of rape, tries to be fair-minded, but the sense of solidarity with the stricken-looking male specimen in the dock is unmistakable.

This majority report, filed on behalf of those who feel that Me Too has gone too far and rape laws are being misused by vengeful women, seeks its legitimacy in the hallowed interiors of the courtroom. A sessions court convicts successful director Rohan (Rahul Bhat) of raping costume designer Anjali (Meera Chopra). Rohan’s wife Kainaz (Sree Swara) hires top-shot lawyer Tarun (Akshaye Khanna) to defend Rohan.

Under the watchful eyes of judges played by Kishore Kadam and Krutika Desai, Tarun attempts to expose the weaknesses in Anjali’s claims. His job is made easier by the barely competent public prosecutor Hiral (Richa Chadha), who relies on emotion rather than solid homework to defend her client.

Hiral takes the moral high ground, while Tarun wallows in the dirt, digging up uncomfortable truths about the relationship between Rohan and his accuser. It gets personal for Tarun when he is publicly attacked by a protester. As Tarun sharpens his game, a movie that has until then flirted with nuance and complexity bares its fangs while inching towards a predictable climax.

Section 375 derives its title from the Indian Penal Code provisions against sexual assault. The 123-minute legal drama appears to be referencing, among other events, the conviction of the actor Shiney Ahuja in 2011 for raping his domestic worker. The director is Ajay Bahl, best-known for the erotic thriller B.A. Pass (2012), in which a married woman teaches her young lover a condensed version of the Kama Sutra and then pushes him into sex work.

Rahul Bhat in Section 375 (2019). Courtesy SCIPL/Panorama Studios.

The main screenplay of Section 375 (Bahl has contributed too) is by Manish Gupta, who in 2015 directed Rahasya, based on the double murders of Arushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade in 2008. Rahasya cast a deeply suspicious eye on the parents of its young victim, and went with the tabloid version of events.

A similar tawdriness finds its way into this movie, which affects documentary-style realism in its staging of scenes and buttoned-down performances. The alleged rape that inspires events in Section 375 is replayed several times over, and photographs of the bruises on the victim’s private parts are displayed in unsettling close-ups.

The movie is deeply cynical about the line between law and justice – the law is concrete but justice is abstract, Tarun observes. As Tarun blathers on, it’s clear that for all his erudition, he doesn’t quite get that rape is about power, not sex. Many of the legal arguments, which are delivered in English, hinge on unprovable assertions by Tarun. Hiral’s spirited “Objection, milords!” become a source of unlikely humour.

Akshaye Khanna’s efficient performance is aided by a screenplay that leans heavily towards his point of view. Reduced to flapping about and displaying her lack of preparedness on every occasion, Richa Chadha’s hapless prosecutor is as much a cipher as Meera Chopra’s blank-faced complainant.

Tarun demands the right to be heard – imagine a world in which we do not have the constitutional right to defend ourselves, he says early in Section 375. This would indeed be a terrible world. In the interests of free expression, then, it is necessary to hear the support for patriarchy laid out by Section 375 – just as it is possible, in a democracy, to decide for yourself whether the movie is an effective legal drama or a bilious defence of deeply entrenched sexism in Bollywood.

Section 375 (2019).