Few actors can play an unassuming, ordinary middle-class man as well as Vinay Pathak (whose skills have been woefully underutilized over the past decade), and this is emphasized in the opening scenes of the new movie 420. cpi. bansi chartered accountant keswani (pathak) is with one of his most high-profile clients, the deputy director of the mumbai metropolitan region development authority (mmrda). “There should be different rules for family members of government officials, right?” says this official during a talk about the tax return; Keswani responds with a quarter smile and a politely lukewarm “hee,” followed by a nod and a “major chaloon.” (“will I go now?”)
an honest ca who feels uncomfortable about the suggestions of power trafficking in high places and for the rights of privileged people? Not long after this, we see Keswani muttering disapprovingly “shakkar mein bhi paise bachate hain” (“they save money even on sugar”) after having a soft tea served in an office he knows does big financial transactions. At this point, the line between the bigwigs pulling the strings and the worker ants serving seems to be pretty well defined.
and so when bansi and his wife pooja (gul panag, in the unaglamoured avatar of some of his early movies like dor and manorama six feet under) find cbi officers raiding their house, the feeling of violation is palpable. “Sir, chief karze mein dooba hua aadmi hoon, chief emi nahin bhar paaya hoon,” protests Bansi as officials vandalize his home for evidence of financial scams. We don’t know many details yet, but seeing a middle-class family under siege can make a viewer’s hair stand on end when they know how vulnerable these underdogs are to miscarriage of justice.
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although keswani is off the hook, a couple of months later he finds himself in trouble again when forged checks worth Rs 1.5 crore are stolen from the office of another one of his clients. this time, matters are serious enough that he is taken into court custody and court proceedings begin.
Some ambiguity about characters and incidents is built into this scenario, and 420 ipc makes the most of this uncertainty. while pathak seemingly plays a decent man here, he’s also a good enough actor to suggest sinister currents beneath a calm surface, and he’s played evil or sleazy roles before, so a small question mark hangs over this one. narrative of persecuted man. and yes…? could it be…?
420 IPC is written and directed by Manish Gupta, who also wrote the 2019 film Section 375, about the legal proceedings surrounding an allegation of rape. both movies have a comparable arc: an accusation or an arrest is made, we learn about different versions of what might have happened, new information comes in, people’s motivations and interrelationships are seen in a new light, there are little twists. lawyers discuss, discuss the workings of the legal system.
section 375 involved a courtroom showdown between an experienced senior lawyer (played by akshaye khanna, all brow and smirk) and a younger idealist (richa chaddha), with the former imparting life and law lessons condescendingly as the trial progresses. . Initially, it appears that 420 IPC will take the same route: in one corner we have the experienced Parsi prosecutor Jamshed Ji (Ranvir Shorey), in the other the 20-something defense attorney Birbal (Rohan Vinod Mehra). Shorey (who, in what seems like another cinematic life now, worked marvelously well with Vinay Pathak in movies like Bheja Fry and Mithya) has played some unsavory characters recently, and here she is now, her hair slicked back, giving her counterpart an air of smugness. one more time; Meanwhile, Mehra (son of the late Vinod Mehra, who was one of the greatest artists of his day) has a renewed seriousness. it seems likely that for much of the film’s duration, the cards are stacked in favor of the prosecutor.
but something more intriguing happens along the way. no plot spoilers revealed: the rookie birbal turns out to be more street smart and willing to stretch the rules than one initially thought: this naive looking lawyer knows how to manipulate and extract data through police sources and hack friends computer scientists, and says things like “information is power”. at the same time, jamshed ji becomes relatively sidelined, or at least not very threatening. there are subtle changes in our perspective of these characters and others.
In its own way, this is also a story about social relations and equations of power between strata: how the nature of our interactions changes depending on who we are with and also what language we speak. In the courtroom, Birbal speaks crisp, fluent English, which may seem to give him an advantage, but there is a small moment where he is briefly excluded when Jamshed Ji and the judge (also Parsee) engage in a casual aside in his own dialect. there are glimpses of the different ways people behave towards those who are more privileged and less privileged than themselves (although by the end of the film, such categories and hierarchies will blur): in one scene, the usually affable bansi speaks peremptorily to a security guard outside a bank; frustrated that the bank is closed and the guard doesn’t recognize him, he mutters “idiot!” as he walks away. the sophisticated-looking birbal growls “side ho jaao na!” two men taking a selfie on their scooter route.
There are also some jarring elements, such as the occasional underlining of information and the repetition of statements, first in English and then in Hindi, or vice versa. “woh faraar ho gaya,” someone says, and then, after a pause, “he’s running away.” (this sort of thing continues to the point where jamshed ji even ends up saying “your honor shaayad accused ne handkerchief use kiya ho ya roomaal use kiya ho”.) there’s also an annoying character, a junior lawyer, whose main function seems to be asking birbal at regular intervals (thankfully outside the courtroom): “but what if keswani is guilty?” in the process, reminding viewers, not that we needed these jogs, that that’s an option, too.
Formally speaking, 420 ipc is a subdued film, employing the aesthetic of a moderately well-produced Hindi TV drama, not “cinematic” in the obvious ways (and especially if you’ve just seen an annette or a west side story). but it harkens back to a cosy, heartwarming, low-budget kind of indie flick from a decade or two ago, including some that pathak, shorey, and panag used to work on, despite the occasional stretch of dramatic moments (and the little exercises bilinguals mentioned above), knows how to keep the plot moving, and the narration is largely to the point. At its best, this is a riveting depiction of a world where the line between big and small finance, or big and small scams, is blurred, and where it’s hard to tell who’s holding the reins of power at any given time. . given time.
Given all the balls in the air and the (big and small) reveals in the second half, I almost wished the movie was a bit longer. he felt rushed at the end, as if a producer had looked at his watch during a test screening, he turned to the editor and said “okay, eight more minutes tops”. Another advantage of a longer running time might have been that Pathak and Shorey, two excellent actors who don’t get enough screen time despite their seemingly central roles, might have had more to do. Hopefully, a meaty role in a high-profile series is just around the corner for them.
420 ipc is transmitting on zee5.