How far can one go for justice, and how much can one bear? How worldly wise it is to pay a personal price for justice to someone who you are not related to? Can someone who be more and someone else be less 'worthy' of justice? These are just some of the hard questions that ' Damini - Lightning' puts across in hard-hitting, unabashed and slightly exaggerated fashion.
Damini grapples with the issue of gender discrimination at all levels, and touches upon most of those general pre-conceptions that form the very foundation of social bias against women in India. Although the primary focus of the movie is the rape and murder of a helpless young maid and another woman's struggle to secure justice for the victim, ' Damini - Lightning ' paints a convincing backdrop for the crime making the offence present itself as a natural outcome of how the society looks at and treats its women. So, and therein lies the primary success of the movie.
All that stands against Indian middle class girls and women finds a mention in the movie, be it the peripheral issues like dowry and domestic oppression, or the idea of 'family honour', which is, of course, at the very heart of the plot.
The Guptas are an affluent, well-known and widely regarded business family. We find the eldest son of senior Mr. Gupta falling in love with a simple girl of modest background and sound values - Damini. Her honesty and cadour impresses Mr. Gupta when she refuses to hide the fact that her elder sister had eloped with a suitor not for love but to bail her father out of the dowry conundrum that was beginning to disturb the peace of the family. The same honesty and resistance to injustice that made Damini so likeable and praiseworthy becomes a curse for the Guptas when their younger son and his friends gangrape a domestic servant - Urmi - and both Damini and her husband become helpless eyewitnesses to it. While her husband is prepared to stay mum to protect the 'family honour', Damini is more interested in getting justice for Urmi. To her the truth is more important.
Damini's husband, otherwise a good man, finds it difficult to stand by Damini in support of justice for Urmi because he is unsure of whether or not he should go against his own family and soil the 'family name' though he is as unforgiving of what happens to Urmi as Damini is. But then, everyone around her, from the police to the press, has an agenda of his or her own.
Damini's 'middle class values' do not allow her to be indifferent to Urmi's suffering and the injustice done to her. To make matters worse for her conscience, Urmi is killed in the hospital, where she had been fighting to survive after the brutal sexual assault. However, by that time she has Advocate Govind (Sunny Deol in his National Award winning, career-best performance) by her side.
Govind enters the scene quite late, but carries the movie on his shoulders after that. For Sunny Deol ' Damini - Lightning ' was god-sent because before or since the movie there has been no other movie in which Sunny's 'acting' has been as widely appreciated though his 'performance' has attracted acclaim in movies such as Ghayal, Ghatak and Gadar. Sunny has been a prisoner of the 'tough guy' image for a long time now. And Damini does not greatly interfere with the image but tinkers it a little and sharpens the cutting edges a bit. Director Santoshi exploits the tough-guy-Sunny image to his advantage and re-shapes certain aspects to suit the story and the plot, and thus brings to us a different tough-guy-Sunny, which is why Sunny looks so unusual and fresh. He is the brain, the brawn and the attitude all rolled into one raw self.
Damini was critically acclaimed and deservedly so, but the popular appeal of the movie lies in Sunny's pronounced aggressiveness amply reflected in his courtroom exchanges with Chadha (ably played by Amrish Puri). Govind has nothing to lose and is as unshakeable as a mountain both inside and outside the courtroom. He can thrash the goons with as much ease as he can thwart Chadha's divisive courtroom tricks. The courtroom drama in the movie is fascinating, but is still a bit unrealistic in many respects so far as the courtroom exchanges are concerned.
It's usual in the movies for a criminal trial to begin in a High Court unlike in the real life, where the trial takes place in the lower courts (sessions courts). Damini - Lightning is no different. So, we have a High Court trial conducted in the Bombay High Court. For those who might be wondering, the building shown just before Govind's first appearance in the court is the Bombay High Court building. Urmi's trial has all the theatrics of a typical Bollywood courtroom drama well in place. However, in the course of this highly dramatic trial, the movie manages to squeeze in a few very relevant issues and does raise certain significant questions about the criminal justice system that we have in place today.
Much before Govind makes an explosive entry with his now famous 'heavy hand' (' dhai kilo ka haath '), Damini is put through a grueling examination by Advocate Chadha, who puts some very explicit questions of sexual nature to harass Damini in order to throw her off balance disrupting the consistency of her account of the rape so as to make her testimony doubtful. Of course, the questions that Chadha asks are stinking sick and are so obviously not aimed at establishing the facts of the case that it is doubtful if any real court would permit such questioning.
Section 151 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, read with section 152 of the same enactment empower the courts to "prohibit any questions or inquiries which it regards as indecent or scandalous, although such questions or inquiries may have some bearing on the questions before the Court unless they relate to fact in issue or to matters necessary to be known in order to determine whether or not the facts in issue existed" (section 151), particularly when such questions are "intended to insult or annoy, or which, though proper in itself, appears to the Court needlessly offensive in form" (section 152).
Chadha badgers Damini on and on to the extent that she manages to elicit such hysterical responses as to prove that she is not of completely sound mind, which is when the court sends her to a mental institution for treatment, where she is given electric shocks aimed at maddening her. She escapes an attempt at her life and runs into Govind and the movie gets its real 'hero', who turns the tables on Chadha and his clients.
Two other pertinent issues that the movie raises are the protection of witnesses and victims, and the court delays that we are all too familiar with. The murder of Urmi and the attack on Damini during the climax drive home the point as to how vulnerable the victims of and witnesses to a crime sometimes might be, and how easy it could be for the rich and the influential to exert pressure on the weak human links in the case and obtain a favourable verdict resulting in gross injustice.
Despite being a mainstream movie complete with all the melodrama befitting the regular Bollywood flick, ' Damini - Lightning ' manages to be realistic, more or less, insofar as touching the relevant issues is concerned. However, it does overdo certain things for effect, but that is pardonable in view of the fact that it is a movie at the end of the day and not a documentary. To entertain is one of the primary objectives of cinema, especially if the movie has to make some money and the director has to remain in business and be looked upon as a commercial filmmaker. We all know that life in Bollywood can be really hard with the 'arty filmmaker' tag. So, Santoshi acts wise and takes the middle path of making a socially relevant film spiced up with the Bollywood 'tastemaker' melodrama. The movie is realistic, unrealistic and melodramatic in the right places, which explains the National Award it was conferred upon with. No complaints on that score, for even if it just about 'deserved' the award, it did deserve it after all.