Late into a Delhi evening, a car rushes to a hospital. Inside are three young men, one of whom is bleeding profusely from a nasty cut above one eye. Across town the easygoing lives of three young women, who share an apartment in an upwardly mobile enclave, takes an unexpected and ugly detour. The three women appear to have been involved in the incident that resulted in the young man’s eye injury. What exactly happened? Why the blood? Why the secrecy? Why the fear? And all of this happens in just the first ten minutes.
From this unsettling, uneven high stakes opening we are on to something remarkable. The three men claim to have been attacked by the women after agreeing to meet them after a rock concert. Of the three men, Rajveer (Bedi) belongs to a powerful and well-connected family while the women—Minal (Pannu), Falak (Kulhari) and Andrea (Tariang) are working girls from modest backgrounds. The men begin to harass the women. Minal gets nearly run over by a car and is then attacked and Falak loses her job. The police, not countering any of the womens’ claims, instead jail Minal on attempted murder charges.
Slow but astute in his step, Deepak Sehgal (Bachchan) is an ageing retired attorney caring for his ill wife. Sehgal is the neighbor to the three women and guesses what might have happened and, ever so reluctantly, steps in to help the women in court. What follows is an excellent court drama that lays bare the hypocrisy of social norms that allow men to be independent and decry women for choosing to do the same thing—especially when it comes to living arrangements.
As the tense splendid court drama unfolds, with the women represented by Sehgal and the men represented by a bald-headed lawyer (Mishra), crowded court room adult confrontations that speak boldly on what makes up sexual consent and sexual morality in a changing society take center stage. This is indeed uncharted territory for a mainstream Indian film. Should the accused individual’s ethnicity, bank balance, dating history or age at first sexual experience matter? What does it mean when a woman, anyone really, says “no” to a come on?
Like highly refined court procedurals, Pink also tenses up quickly. Credibility is questioned. Memories are recalled. Versions are re-told. Alibis are offered. Alibis are denied. Witnesses are cross examined. Closed circuit video is played, and replayed. With what actually happened shown almost as an afterthought as the camera is pulling away, the urgency is all about the here and now. What the men are saying against what the women are saying. His word against hers.
Bachchan’s Sehgal wears a mask during his carefully routed daily walks through a neighborhood park. Outwardly to ward off Delhi’s polluted air, the mask brilliantly foreshadows fear—the fear of strangers. Anyone in the presence of the mask, especially in dimming light, is gripped by a stay-or-run existential jolt. This pretty much sums up the daily fears of urbanites, including Minal, Falak and Andrea after they are harassed. That the mask serves a perfunctory use is of little consequence. The fear it represents must be overcome.
Bachchan’s cranky-goat Sehgal is an old school legal eagle that wants to, and even needs to help, in part to compensate for his helplessness in not being able to help his ailing wife but also to help overcome official indifference he sees the women having to suffer. Pannu and Kulhari decently put up brave fronts and unite when their characters have to, while Bedi, as Rajveer, is a scion of privilege unprepared for court. Shantanu Moitra’s musical score is ear worthy with repeated listening.
The result is a modest budget movie that raked in huge box office returns— Bachchan’s biggest in recent years. For an original script that taps into collective fears about the perils of urban living, Pink has few parallels. For opening social conversation, however, add Pink to the short list of notable Hindi movies that feature strong female characters having to clear their name in court following a sexual assault (Damini, Insaf Ka Tarazu, No One Killed Jessica).
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.