The first rays of sunlight were slowly making their way across the night sky outside Alipore jail in south Kolkata.
Outside the boundary walls, a gathering of a few hundred people comprising mostly journalists, human rights activists and security personnel had stayed put all night.
The city, like elsewhere in the country, was about to break slumber and celebrate India’s 57th Independence Day. Yet those present in that gathering, including this correspondent, found little to celebrate amid the weird concoction of rage, gloom, protest slogans and early morning dash for “Breaking News”. And, anticipation filled the air.
That anticipation was soon manifest in a mad rush of newspaper photographers and TV crew to record the haunting image of a pair of protruding feet from underneath a white sheet that covered a body.
The state had only just carried out the judicial execution of Dhananjay Chatterjee, a security guard convicted of the gruesome rape and murder of an 18-year old school student, Hetal Parekh, on March 5, 1990 in her third floor apartment in Bhowanipore.
Bengal, then, was under the rule of the erstwhile Left Front government and Meera Bhattacharjee, the wife of the chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had herself led a campaign to hasten Dhananjay’s hanging. Ironically, he was hanged the day he turned 39.
Thirteen years since that fateful morning, city-based filmmaker Arindam Sil is all set to rekindle the controversy.
His film, Dhananjay, is scheduled for release on August 11 across theatres in Bengal.
Sil’s primary take-off point for the movie is several research-based documents which point towards the possibility of a sloppy investigation and a consequent miscarriage of justice that led to Dhananjay’s execution.
“Even as I delved deep into the documents over Dhananjay’s sentencing, I found that the investigation may have been entirely botched up. The trial was conducted over not a single piece of direct evidence. All that was presented before the court were circumstantial evidence, none of which were conclusive,” said Sil, drawing attention towards the controversy surrounding the “rape” of the victim, dubious eye-witness testimonies and sloppy material evidence which formed the basis for this case.
As a matter of fact, Dhananjay had cried hoarsely during his trial that he was innocent of the charges of murder, rape and theft which were slapped on him. And he continued to plead innocence till the day he died while asserting that he was being hung by the neck because he was poor.
“If you meet Dhananjay’s family members you’ll find that time for them has come to a standstill… to them, it seems, the hanging took place only yesterday. They are suffering this ignominy for the past 27 years and are in total recluse,” Sil said while informing that some interactions of his team with Dhananjay’s relatives have actually been used as dialogues in the film.
Actor Anirban Bhattacharya, who plays Dhananjay, is replete with memories of people who knew the man at his native village and at the jail where he served a 14-year sentence and offered feedback during the actor’s research for the character.
“There was nothing extraordinary about this man. Absolutely nothing. All he cared for since the day he was put in jail was when he would get out. He never displayed any emotion except for the pall of gloom on his face when he was informed that his last hope, his mercy plea before the President, has been turned down and a brief hint of a smile on his lips when his informant added he would be the last to be executed in this state,” said Anirban.
“It is for this singular lack of reference about him that made my task so challenging. The only force through which I drove the character was, hence, numbness,” he explained.
Various reports quoting eyewitness accounts of Dhananjay’s last mile walk up to the gallows suggest he displayed no extraordinary emotions and wished everyone well.
Tollygunge star Mimi Chakraborty who plays the role of Kavya Sinha, Dhananjay’s defence counsel, admits her difficulty in having to portray a character which also has no reference. Especially when it is widely held that it was a poor defence that cost Dhananjay his life.
“I developed the character across the story board while talking to the director. But I would add that unlike most of my roles in other films, I put a part of real me inside this character. It is my own emotional response to what happened all those years ago,” Mimi said.
Even as the murmur around a re-examination of Dhananjay’s case continues to grow louder, the release of the film it seems couldn’t have been better timed. And only if the alleged loopholes in the case are identified, can they be plugged to avoid a recurrence of a travesty of justice that many cry out now. Where that puts the pillars of this country’s democracy is a different matter altogether for perusal, though.
While the producers of the film leave it to the audience to take a call, it is safe to say that the jury is still out even though a verdict is passed and acted upon. The enigma of Dhananjay can only be put to rest if he finally receives a judicial exoneration based on the facts of the case. Posthumously, of course.