As a 90’s kid living in India, the famed Akbar-Birbal stories were part of my growing up years – firstly, thanks to the Amar Chitra Katha comics, and secondly, courtesy the animated series on Cartoon Network. Known for his sharp mind, analytical skills, and quirky wit, Birbal was one of Akbar’s ‘Navaratna’ (nine gems).
From mundane matters pertaining to state of affairs, to something as absurd as counting the number of crows in the kingdom – popular tales of Birbal encompassed it all. So, it was absolutely intriguing to land a book about ‘detective’ Birbal who is entrusted with solving a murder mystery. ‘The Tree Bears Witness’ by Sharath Komarraju shows us a new side to the popular historical figure.
Given the times we live in, where any reference to historical figures is met with a threat to life, or a bounty on the head, it is brave of the writer to pen a fictional tale of the murder of Sujjamal, brother of the newly-wedded Rajput queen of Emperor Akbar. Imagine an envoy of a foreign country dying under mysterious circumstances in India – Sujjamal’s murder has similar far-reaching political consequences, as his marriage with the Rajput princess was a political manoeuvre.
Given the gravity of the situation, Akbar turns to his trusted lieutenant to bring the perpetrator to justice using his famed grey matter. While Birbal sets on the task, he has a herculean challenge laid out before him. Palace politics plays out, as powerful people try to throw Birbal off-course in his task. An innocent scape-goat is jailed for convenience and rivalries play out in a way that makes Birbal’s work even more arduous.
The brisk pace of the story, with all the twists, makes this novel an enjoyable read. Birbal could very well be a modern-day CBI sleuth who is investigating the murder of a diplomat; the spirit of the story would remain intact. The delectable writing, with historical setting, set this book a class apart. The climax, where Birbal assembles the entire royal clan to reveal the murderer, reminded me of how Feluda always finished his cases.
Overall, ‘The Tree Bears Witness’ by Sharath Komarraju is an exciting murder mystery that adds a dash of history to a fictional tale of whodunit. If you read between the lines, the political subtext in the novel will surely impress you.
My Rating: 4/5 stars
P.S. The review copy of the book was provided by Amazon.
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15 August, 2004 brought the curtains down on the life Dhananjoy Chatterjee after 14 years of trials and tribulations. The central character to a heinous crime that shook the ‘Bhadralok’ city of Kolkata, Dhananjoy’s name evokes emotionally-charged responses from people even to this day. Accused of raping and murdering an 18-year old Hetal Parekh, Dhananjoy (who served as the security guard of the building where Hetal lived) claimed innocence till the day of his hanging.
The trial of Dhananjoy Chatterjee left many questions unanswered (he was unprecedentedly awarded death sentence solely based on circumstantial evidence when many key witnesses had made contrary statements in the court). There was a groundswell of clamour for his hanging at the time in Kolkata, led by none-other-than the wife of the then Chief Minister of the State, political pressure from the Gujarati vote-bank and a huge media pressure which led to the final culmination of Dhananjoy’s fate. Was he guilty? Or was he just another scapegoat sacrificed at the altar of our inept judicial system? Arindam Sil’s film explores the unsolved pieces of the puzzle.
The film is a gripping courtroom drama that compels you to challenge the notions you have lived with till now. It makes you question the system and assume a ringside view of life as it unfolds. The film can be separated into two parts: the first half explores the Dhananjoy trials as it happened in a flashback while the second half is a work of fiction where the case is reopened and available evidences re-examined and questioned in a trial. Although the film is judgmental, the director lets you be the judge of what could have transpired on 5 March, 1990.
The first half of ‘Dhananjoy’ has shades of inspiration from ‘Talvar’. It also has a ‘Roshomon’ style narration of the fateful incident. However, Arindam Sil shines in his story-telling with the daft writing and striking background score. Although the film indulges in melodrama at times, it is balanced by performances that will keep you to the edge of your seats.
A courtroom drama is expected to be dialogue-heavy, which can often get tedious for the audience to digest. In ‘Dhananjoy’ the scenes are interspersed with witty one-liners that keep the film from slipping into monotony. Kanchan Mullick and Mir (Kaushik Sen and Deepanjan Ghosh post intermission) play their parts well as the lawyers in the case. In fact, the legalities in this film were more believable and ‘real’ than most films are. Kabya Sinha, played by Mimi, is emotional yet focused. Mimi does full justice to her part.
Anirban Bhattacharya and Sudipta Chakraborty steal the show with their nuanced yet emotive performances. The stoic villainy portrayed by Sudipta is enough to send a shiver down your spine. Anirban Bhattacharya’s eyes do the talking for him. His slow walk to the gallows with Manna Dey’s ‘Mahasindhur Opar Hote’ will haunt your memories for days to come. These are performances that will define the year 2017 for Bengali cinema.
However, Kabya’s motivation to work in this case, that too four years after a man has been hanged, is a bit too much to handle. A more convincing back story could have added to the film. Why require a full-fledged trial to re-examine the evidence? With the research she had, she could have written a book instead. Also, was the public prosecutor in the second half only there for providing comic relief through objections? He hardly made a case. Moreover, the opening disclaimer says the film is purely a work of fiction, while the name as well as the promos belie the claim.
All controversies aside, there is an inherent honesty in the making of the film which sets ‘Dhananjoy’ apart. One must watch it with an open mind and separate the facts from the fiction while walking out of the theatres.
My rating: 3/5 stars
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