A gripping court drama about an individual’s “right to think”

Story: A science teacher is suspended from his Christian missionary school and imprisoned on false charges when he refuses to teach the biblical story of creation before Darwinian evolution. A reclusive lawyer (Anton De Souza) agrees to defend himself and faces an old ally (Reverend Basanta Kumar Chatterjee) in court. But a bigger and more sinister conspiracy is at play, as a politician stokes the fire and uses the problem for his own benefit.

Exam: The courtroom drama is a commentary on the socio-economic and political scenario of the nation, while trying to be the voice of reason against bigotry. It also denounces the disregard for an individual’s right to independent thought. A teacher at Hillolganj Christian High School, Kunal Joseph Baske (Sraman Chaterjee), makes a rational decision to avoid teaching science from a Vedic textbook as his knowledge of the same is limited. He also skips the biblical story of creation because his students are already familiar with it and chooses to teach Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution instead. But the school suspends him for breaking their first lesson rule on Genesis. Kunal is put behind bars for two months on false charges, as a local politician gives this episode a community color.

Kunal insists it was an honest mistake, that he was not disparaging the Bible, and pleads not guilty. As her trial begins, the church pastor brings in a formidable lawyer, Rev. Basanta Kumar Chatterjee (Soumitra Chattopadhyay), to represent the school. The defense lawyer is his former colleague, Anton De Souza (Naseeruddin Shah) – a lawyer disappointed by the growing religious polarization in the country. The courtroom drama between the two pillars representing religion and science, fanaticism and purpose, respectively, shapes the rest of the story.

A holy conspiracy hits home with its theme that every citizen has the constitutional right to hold different religious beliefs as much as they must practice and protect their faith. It has three stakeholders – the religious fanatics, the rational and the misguided. Kunal is in the embarrassment of preferring science to a sacred text. The church considers him an atheist and an apostate, and he is a Maoist for the authorities. The movie cleverly uses basic logic to drive home the point instead of tying it down to emotions. He also talks about the politics of religion that can cause an innocent person to spend months in jail without a hearing. A fierce journalist, Hari (Kaushik Sen), compares Kunal to Rohith Venmula, as he also talks about his tribe, Santhal.

As Naseer poignantly puts it, “the right to think is on trial.” The battle of wits touches on the dichotomy of views on the law of nature, logic, and even reproduction, seen through the prism of religion. It highlights the erasing of Indian history and the modification of school textbooks to fit the narrative of a certain faction. This is not just a story of religion versus science or modern education versus pseudoscience, but also how voices could be suppressed – those of an individual or an entire community.

Naseer is, as usual, brilliant as the world-weary lawyer who is fierce but kind and unbiased. Although he disagrees with Reverend Basanta, he recognizes him as a great man and a lawyer. Bengali cinema icon Soumitra Chattopadhyay delivers an incredibly powerful performance in her pan-Indian swan song. He is an authority on the Bible, who is also fair and has his heart in the right place. You’ll feel for the late comedian when he realizes the seriousness of the situation, but finds it hard to let go of his strong beliefs. Each actor presents their side with such conviction during the debate in the courtroom that not only will you pay attention, but you will also have a hard time choosing your side. National award-winning actor Kaushik Sen as an abrasive journalist is exceptional and shows his prowess towards the end when he confronts Naseer about his ideologies. Amrita Chattopadhyay as Kunal’s fiancée torn between her beliefs and the truth also gives a standout performance.

Director and screenwriter, Saibal Mitra, handles the film with excellent skill, and the cinematography is par excellence. Even though the first half is slightly slow, it doesn’t sag in its narrative. The second half intensifies the drama while exposing the power of political influence. The thought-provoking fare that upholds the right of every citizen to think and believe independently, regardless of religion, makes this an extremely engaging watch.

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