How the judiciary is depicted in Nepali moviesSadly, the portrayal of the judiciary in Nepali films mirrors the declining stature of the courts
While teaching at Kathmandu University School of Law, I ask my students if they or their seniors have danced to the Nepali song Maitighar. Nearly all students immediately raised their hands.
Not surprising, since the song has been playing for decades in school assemblies, and has been unofficially incorporated as an essential school activity in Nepal’s academic curriculum.
Next, I ask students if they are aware that the 1966 movie had an iconic courtroom scene where lawyers argue the facts of a murder case in which the admissibility of a dying declaration was a fact in issue.
None of the 200 students were aware of this. Some were inspired to be lawyers after watching the American drama series Suits and Boston Legal. Some said they enjoyed watching Akshay Kumar in Bollywood’s Jolly LLB. But Nepali students of law were not inspired by a Nepali movie.
Movies mirror the socio-cultural aspects of a society. How Nepal’s judiciary is portrayed in movies is the first impression of the delivery of justice for Nepalis who don’t have access to speedy legal aid.
The 13-minute climactic court room scene in Maitighar portrays a respectable judiciary. A three-judge bench gives a patient hearing and adheres to the principles of natural justice, a forensic doctor has been invited as an expert witness to guide the judiciary in technical matters of medicine, and public prosecutors and defence counsels are seen establishing a chain of causation of the crime.
The dialogue is sound in law, and as the scene intensifies, viewers can’t help but focus their attention to how the judges will be delivering justice.
In the 2014 movie Chha Ekan Chha, veteran actor Nir Shah plays the role of a judge who has to determine an adultery case and sets the courtroom decorum by shutting down a misogynic comment made by the lawyer. However, that promising scene immediately degenerates into another in which the judge decides to flirt with the woman in the witness box.
The portrayal of this scene was upsetting, but not unprecedented in real life. A young lawyer friend once related to me how while arguing a case before the court, a judge stopped her to ask about her age and her father’s occupation.
She answered politely and continued to defend her client. A few days later, she got the news that the judge was trying to find a suitable female practicing lawyer to marry his son.
The star studded Chakka Panja 2 movie has a polyandry case shot in the premises of Patan High Court. The legal issue being argued is the validity of a marriage for the purpose of migrating to Australia.
While cross-examining a witness, Priyanka Karki’s character makes an emotional argument stating that Nepali youth do not have faith in the country, and will not return to build the nation. The witness leaves the courtroom, disobeying the judge, thereby portraying the inability of the judge to hold court.
The common theme in these movies circles around the rights of women. However, the 2021 movie Eh Mero Hajur 4 seems to have digressed from this by portraying a custody battle. Not of a child, but a dog.
The fact that the judge entertained a matter of an unmarried couple makes you wonder how the suit has locus standi, but when the judge goes on to pass a joint custody order over the dog it raises questions of jurisprudence.
In these scenes, the script is replete with sexist jokes and personal attacks at the judge. The arguments are over-expressive, all to get a few laughs from the audience. The judiciary is not portrayed as a formal and serious institution where distressed citizens come to receive justice, but a playground where justice is delivered based on populist arguments rather than resolute understanding of law.
What has the Bar Council been doing? Its primary task is to uphold the ethical values of the legal fraternity and make it a respectable profession. The Judicial Council is also expected to instil faith in Nepali citizens’ access to justice by immediately addressing concerns about the independence of the judiciary. The portrayal in Nepali movies does not help when embarrassing behaviour by judges and lawyers frequently make the media headlines.
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Last October, we had two lawyers punching each other in the premises of Nepal Bar Association over a dispute about boycotting the bench assigned by Chief Justice Cholendra Shamsher Rana. In June an audio recording was leaked to the press in which a lawyer and Kathmandu District Court judge were found negotiating a deal for the bail of real estate tycoon Ichchha Raj Tamang.
There were reports in July that more than 200 complaints had been filed before the Judicial Council on the illegal and political appointment of judges by neglecting established principles of law. In September, Chief Justice Rana started disclosing political affiliations of various former and sitting judges while defending himself before the Impeachment Recommendation Committee of the Parliament.
All this in a period less than 12 months. Expecting law teachers in Nepal to inspire the next generation of lawyers in the midst of all this is asking them to forge a false narrative of a profession which lacks role models. The present leaders of the legal profession need to act by example, to give hope for the upcoming generation.
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It is not surprising, therefore, that the portrayal of Nepal’s judiciary in the country’s movies has been declining between 1960’s and 2020’s. The movies are just mirroring society. As a law teacher trying to mend things, I have to admit sadly that the way the judiciary is shown in films is accurate.
Prajwal teaches law at Kathmandu University and was an Oxford Policy Fellow at the Ministry of Finance in Uganda.