Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors is a slow burn by design. The web series revolves around a woman who has suffered gaslighting for so long, she can barely begin to confront the truth of what has been done to her.
Anu (Kirti Kulhari) is married to the highly respected and affluent Mumbai lawyer Bikram (Jisshu Sengupta). His stealthy and sinister ways suggest that he isn’t the “great guy” or the “gem of a person” that he is described to be. Anu’s jangly behaviour indicates that she is at the very tip of the edge. She does fall over, grievously injuring Bikram by driving a knife into his belly.
Their daughter Rhea (Adiraj Sinha), who has witnessed the aftermath of the crime, is briefly treated as a suspect. Goaded by the aggressive police officer Harsh (Jeet Singh Palawat), Anu signs a confession. She is packed off to prison to await her trial.
It’s an open and shut case that apparently no lawyer in Mumbai will touch. That’s an excuse for the re-entry of the kooky Madhav Mishra, one of the highlights of the first season of Criminal Justice. Madhav (Pankaj Tripathi) leaves behind his newly acquired wife Ratna (Khushboo Atre) and his marriage unconsummated and plunges into the case with palpable relief. Madhav’s challenge – which is shared by the show’s writer Apurva Asrani and directors Rohan Sippy and Arjun Mukherjee – is to galvanise a seemingly immovable object.
Timid, terrified and tremulous at nearly all times, Anu refuses to admit to years of domestic abuse. Her daughter rejects her, her mother-in-law Vijji (Deepti Naval) ropes in the powerful advocates Mandira (Mita Vashisht) and Dipen (Ashish Vidyarthi), and Harsh is keen on sinking his own knife into her. Yet, Anu hides behind a wall of tears, unable to summon up the courage that will save her from a life sentence.
Both editions of the Disney+ Hotstar series have been adapted from the BBC shows of the same name. The Indian version of the second season is needlessly longer – eight episodes versus five.
Behind Closed Doors is slickly produced and directed and admirably performed by the cast. Through the device of a courtroom drama, the series brings the important issue of unseen violence against women out into the open, but also undercuts its impact through overreach and oversimplification.
The narrative goes some way, though not far enough, in explaining the behaviour patterns of abusers and abuse victims. Bikram’s sophisticated gaslighting has everybody, including his daughter, fooled. It is suggested that a convenient ignorance about Bikram’s true nature and his professional success are responsible for Anu’s plight.
Anu isn’t alone in her sufferance – a creative decision that ends up underservicing her character arc. Madhav teams up with Nikhat (Anupriya Goenka), a holdover from the first season, to break Anu’s silence and provide a female presence to the defence. Harsh’s wife Gauri (Kalyanee Mulay), who is also a police officer, frequently clashes with Harsh’s misogynistic attitudes.
Madhav also gets schooled in gender parity from his wife Ratna, who lands up in Mumbai and discovers the meaning of wokeness, among other things. Madhav’s refusal to share his wife’s bed or even admit that he is married is a form of violence in itself, but is treated as a laugh track in an otherwise-grim affair.
Anu’s misery is drawn out to the maximum, which poses a challenge for the actor playing her. Kirti Kulhari’s heartrending performance is especially laudable considering her frustrating passiveness for the part. By reserving Anu’s transformation until the very end, the series reveals how hard it is for women to publicly admit to violence. Yet, by frequently cutting away from Anu to other characters, we lose sight of the person whom toxic masculinity has harmed the most.
Among the memorable cast members is Adrija Sinha, who is extraordinary as the adolescent Rhea. Pankaj Tripathi channels his teddy-bear charm and delivers the goods as Madhav. Kalyanee Mulay as the empathetic Gauri and Anupriya Goenka as Nikhat stand out in the ensemble cast.
Shilpa Shukla has a striking cameo as Ishani, Anu’s jailmate. Ishani appears to be Anu’s sympathiser, but has her own reasons for shielding Anu from the other prisoners. Surrounded by enemies and battling her own demons, Anu must find a way to let her inner genie out. The most affirming portions of Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors are the scenes in which Anu stops weeping and finally starts fighting, very late but better than never.