Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vishal Furia
Cast: Vikrant Massey, Pankaj Tripathi, Jackie Shroff, Mita Vashisht
Criminal Justice, a Hotstar Specials series, stays true to the metaphorical exposition it tries to sum up in its two-worded title. The Vikrant Massey, Pankaj Tripathi and Jackie Shroff-starrer 10-part-series starts out distractingly and excruciatingly slow, picks up pace after three episodes, frisks unforeseeable circumstances to juice out the best (both, from its socio-political narrative and the characters), but eventually delivers, much to the respite of its audience and, as an extension, the general public as well.
The plot may appear fresh to ones who have not seen The Night Of, which is also streaming on Hotstar. It is the story of a happy-go-lucky boy/cabbie Aditya Sharma, played by Massey, who by virtue of association with the wrong kind of people, on an unfortunate night, gets sucked into the biggest trouble of his life. His fault is that he picks up a passenger, Sanaya Rath (Madhurima Roy), who apart from being a nuisance throughout the ride, mistakingly leaves her phone in his cab.
How the aftermath of the incident induces changes in his personality, courtesy some hardcore mentorship inside the prison cell offered by Mustafa (Shroff), as he tries to prove his alleged innocence with the help of a morally deviant lawyer Madhav Mishra, played by Tripathi, forms the bulk of the story line of Criminal Justice. It is directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vishal Furia.
The series, after Aditya is jailed, is divided into two distinct parts. In one we follow the criminal trial of the incident, with two lawyers in focus (Madhav and Mandira Mathur, played by Mita Vashisht) and the other half follows Aditya's journey in jail, and how he transforms completely.
Both parts are enjoyable, as one is helmed by Tripathi, who has not done anything different here, yet has done his routine self-aware and humourous playact differently. A small time lawyer, Madhav's personal struggle with intermittent itching in his feet is carefully sewn into his insatiable desire for money, and at one point justice for Aditya as well. His proverbial wordplay and the effortless way in which he delivers the most hard-hitting of realities is just delightful to devour and painful to mull over. He also leads the fun quotient in the otherwise dark tale that unfolds inside the prison.
Inside the jail is where the real deal goes down. Low-life thugs run the place and kill and rape, as per will. This has turned a reformation centre into a parallel outpost for heinous activities, in which the system also benefits, as criminals are being killed off each day. This makes the series a grim state of affairs, almost entirely.
Aditya and Mustafa are better inside the prison. At least they have each other here and their seemly warm, yet equally worrying friendship grows on the viewer that always appreciates an underdog winning, even in the most unpleasant of circumstances. The toll that slow justice takes on prison dwellers is rightfully manifested in their relationship and Aditya's coming into his badass own inside the prison.
Much to the merit of the show, it is intriguing and completely congruent with the style and tone of a crime series. Through cinematography and well-rounded direction, it plays around with the characters and their emotions in shadows and highlights, close-ups and long shots, depending on the narrative at play. However, dialogue writing by Anukriti Pandey disappoints. Tripathi is given the best of them, and frankly Shroff does not come across as he needs any. In fact Shroff as Mustafa is effortless in his prison overlord avatar. But the rest of the characters, barring Massey who plays in silences, facial ticks and occasional nervousness, are given expository lines.
This serves no purpose as characters like Aditya's family, police investigators and others are only differentiated in dressing and appearance. No subtext is revealed or character distinction created through their dialogues. When proverbial, they appear cliched and even childish, since at this point in time it comes from a mouth that has already said words like -- "You don't have to give me an incentive to do my job." (Chief investigating officer Inspector Raghu says this to the murdered girl's father)
There are some decent character performances by Mita Vashisht (corporate lawyer), Raaj Gopal Iyer (Sub Inspector Namdeo Jadhav), Rucha Inamdar (Avni Parashar, Aditya's sister) and Jagat Rawat (Diwakar Sharma, Aditya's father) and Dibyendu Bhattacharya (Layak). They elevate storytelling to its realistic and emotional best. The series also finds substantial support in a minimal and fitting soundtrack which increases tension and soothes in equal parts.
Criminal Justice drags a bit, every now and then, but manages to save grace, courtesy actors' performance. Watch Criminal Justice before Riz Ahmed and John Turturro's The Night Of. It may make you like it a little better that way. Otherwise, watch it for Shroff, Tripathi and Massey.