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Crime Drama “The Advocate” Poses the Ultimate Question: What Does True Justice Look Like?
Having observed defense attorneys clinically go about their job of advocating for their clients in the courtroom, win or lose, I always wondered what the outcome meant to them personally. Did they interpret not guilty verdicts as testament to the proper workings of the criminal justice system? Did they relish the victory, or do they choose not to internalize the work, and rather see it as just another day in the office? Ultimately, where do the functionaries of a legal system see their roles in the backdrop of this elusive, yet fundamental, concept of justice?
In the recently released courtroom thriller and drama, The Advocate, defense attorney Ray Shekar struggles with this question of justice to its most absolute, and perhaps perverse, limits. In the film, Shekar (played by Sachin Mehta) is a defense attorney with a spotless acquittal record that keeps him mired in the trenches of criminal law despite his repeated efforts to leave. When Shekar is approached by a socialite accused of murdering her husband, his ambition and curiosity prompt him to sign on as her defense counsel as a means to uncovering the truth about her guilt or innocence. Soon Ray finds himself in the middle of a twisted who-done-it in which he must keep one step ahead of a persistent police detective who begins to suspect the troubling secret behind Ray’s success. Within the framework of a mystery, The Advocate explores the murky waters of the justice system and the people who make it their calling to navigate it.
What gives the film both credibility and nuance is that the lead actor is also an actual defense attorney. It was also the first time I had ever seen an Indo-American as the lead in a courtroom drama. I sat down with Sachin Mehta to talk about the film, get his thoughts on the criminal justice system, and discuss what role his ethnic background played in the film.
The movie poses a central question: Why does justice really look like. Were their times in your legal career that this question really burned at you?
Every single day. Our director, Tamas Harangi, grew up in Hungary during communism. It’s fascinating to hear him talk about it, because as he describes is, he was basically living in a police state most of his time there. He admires our American justice system, because, he’d say, it can be a lot, lot worse. I think it’s possible for somebody to come from Hungary or India, and look at our justice system and say, “well, even when it’s not working, it sorta works.” But I grew up and practice law here, and believe there are very deep flaws. But what exactly they are is a profound question. The answer for me includes greed, class, and access to resources. Our system of doling out justice relies so much on “gamesmanship,” which is one of the central themes of “The Advocate.”
Did your time in front of juries help you as an actor?
Yes, mostly because of that moment, when the courtroom is silent, and the judge tells you to proceed, and you have a couple of dozen people watching you, waiting for you to DO something – there’s an existential moment of “what the hell am I doing here?” Lawyering got me used to taking that step forward into empty space, like you have to do as an actor in front of an audience or on a set.
USC law school, international legal background, private practice – why make a movie?
I had to make a choice – continue trying to deal with and “understand” my migraines caused by being a lawyer, or, recognize that my soul wasn’t all used up by being a lawyer, that it could release itself into something else. I fell into the movies. And I have less migraines now. If you notice, my character gets headaches.
You are Indo-American playing an Indo-American character in this film, but what was interesting was that it was a role that could have been played by an actor of any race. What role does your Indian identity play in the making or acting in this film?
At first I thought my Indian identify had something to do with the film, but you know, the film got accepted into various festivals, including Dances With Films, yet it was passed by various Indian film festivals. Maybe that’s their way of saying, “your film isn’t Indian enough.” And I can live with that, because in a way, the degree of “Indian-ness” is something I’ve had to deal with my entire life. And there isn’t a single reference to Ray’s Indian-ness in this entire movie, much like how there wouldn’t be during an average work week. We even thought about giving my character a cricket bat to swing around while he was pondering his cases, but we nixed it because most likely, Ray would have swung around a baseball bat, and that was already done in A Few Good Men. So we gave him scotch to hold in his hand. That’s sort of Indian, isn’t it? And yet, I’ve also heard that our film may not do as well because we have an Indo-American for the lead, and a Laotian woman for his sidekick. When I think about that, I feel my Indian identity has everything to do with this film. It’s an assertion of identity in a marketplace that people assume prefers non-Asians as leads. I don’t think that assumption is true.
The film, as you say, has received very positive initial responses. Everyone appreciates a thrill-ride story, but what do you think the audience response means to the public’s perception of our criminal justice system?
There’s a difference between the type of justice that we’re taught growing up, and the actual justice that gets churned out in the sausage factory of our courtrooms. And I think on some level, most people are aware of this difference. When they praise The Advocate, I think it’s because the film brings to screen what people feel internally. Namely, that justice is often a game played by the wealthy, and in a scary way, is very, very subjective.