“I am the last to finish a meal
Because I eat so slowly
O Bachchoo, must you be condemned
Because of this as lowly!”
— From Row Row K. Gumbihara by Bachchoo
I’ve written in several genres for the small and large screen but, gentle reader, never a courtroom drama. And that’s strange because as a viewer I find them fascinating, mesmerising even, if well written with the suspense maintained till the last word, as in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for The Prosecution.
My taste for courtroom drama was perhaps formed when reading my grandfather’s discarded paperbacks of the Perry Mason books by Erle Stanley Gardner. I still feel compelled, though I restrain myself, from dismissing a friend’s, foe’s or dining-table-guest’s argument, with “that’s incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial!” Those were Perry Mason’s nails in the coffin of evidence, but I suppose I am more inclined to say “aiy don’t be silly yaar!” when confronted with some absurdity.
Having seen two very compelling courtroom dramas on television this week, made me wonder why I hadn’t ever attempted the genre. I’ve always thought writing should reflect one’s own experience, observation, insight and memory, even through the invention, as In Shakespeare or Dickens, of dramatic characters.
The first of the TV shows I admired was a recreation of the British ‘Mangrove Nine’ trial of 1970, in which four out of nine of the accused were friends and ‘comrades’ of mine and two others were people I knew. The trial arose from the West London Police’s reaction to and attack on a demonstration of 160 black people protesting against the unjustified, repeated and destructive raids on a West Indian restaurant called The Mangrove.
The restaurant was owned by the late Frank Critchlow and was subjected to regular, vicious and destructive raids by the West London police under the pretext of closing down a drug den. The Caribbean community of Notting Hill and North Kensington used the restaurant as a meeting place. I went there occasionally. No drugs were ever found and no prosecutions brought, though the police smashed up the restaurant, wrestled its clientele and arrested its owner, workers and customers without any evidence with which to charge them.
In reaction to the raids the ‘political’ elements and individuals in the community called a demonstration to expose these raids as racist attacks on the innocent. The British establishment, and the West London police force as its arm, had not faced such a militant protest before. The demonstrators, in the argot of the time were shouting slogans of Black power, notably “the Pigs, the Pigs, we gotta get rid of the Pigs”. This was, in that era, a porcine metaphor for the police force (later known to the black young as “de Babylon”).
The confrontation ended in a mild fracas, with flaying police batons, women being held on the ground by three burly policemen and some demonstrators aiming kicks at blue-uniformed crotches and shins.
Nine people ended up in court accused of riot and affray and other lesser charges. These charges were absurd. It’s possible that the British prosecutors were throwing the book, or even a shelf of the library, at the accused in order to encourager les autres.
The film of the trial, seen today as a historical milestone in the settlement of the new communities of Britain, is as fair a representation of the events and the court proceedings as dramatic reproduction can make it. Yes, I spotted twenty discrepancies or petty falsehoods in the retelling, with some characters with the wrong names and wrong accents, but the overall impression captured the events before and in the courtroom.
The second trial on screen was that of the Chicago 7, individual leaders of the hippie generation who opposed the draft law which would send thousands of young men and women to fight and possibly die in the American war in Vietnam. I remember following reports of the trial in which the accused had led protests against the Democratic Party convention in Chicago.
In both trials, the defendant’s fate was in the hands of a jury. Jurors are not allowed to speak at or during a trial, so the drama is confined to the interaction between the lawyers, the judge, the witnesses and defendants, with occasional contributions from the press and the spectators.
This re-enactment of the Chicago 7 trial, with Bobby Seale, the only black defendant, bound and gagged in public when he vociferously protested against a judgement of the bench, was also an essential and telling record of US history.
And now, gentle reader, I am inspired to mull over which trial I can dramatise and attempt to have produced for the screen. To tell the truth, I have only been indicted personally in one trial I which I defended myself and was acquitted of the charge of assaulting policemen in a London demonstration. Ten-minute drama if that. Then there were two trials in India in which I was peripherally involved: the failed attempt to get my film Bandit Queen banned and the dismissal of the case against my other film Mangal Pandey, the Rising. Both dramatic — the first with the future minister of the BJP, the late Arun Jaitley, appearing to represent, believe it or not, freedom of speech and truth.