Monday, 18 January 2010

12 ANGRY MEN: Justice by A Minority

Put 12 men in a room, give them a situation with limited facts, and tell them to draw a consensus on their verdict. Chances are they will revert within few minutes with a unanimous reply. However, compel them to sit through the details, and at least one person is bound to differ in his view. Now, if the task is to deliver a unanimous result, how tough or easy would it be for the thinking dozen to change their rationale arguments and concede with the single dissenter?

The film '12 Angry Men' is the perfect example of the triumph of the minority. As writer-philosopher Will Durant who had said, “Truth always originates in a minority of one, and every custom begins as a broken precedent”, the film explains how 11 men change their sides to an argument. Each has his own way of thinking – clothed with past experiences, observations, theoretical knowledge, assumptions, ignorance, cowardice, ego, personal prejudice, the preference for status quo and laziness. The premise of the 1957 film is something that each of us experiences in the midst of any conversation within a group. Yet, subconsciously, the arguments bring in their own set of tangents to the rationality of thoughts.

The film stands erect, thanks to a tight script set inside a jurors' room. Twelve strangers from different walks of life have to decide upon the trial of an 18-year-old boy accused of murdering his father. The room is long and stuffy, and the humidity outside adds to the woes of some of the men, for whom the probability of sending a young boy to be electrocuted seems too distant from their lives. They are rather concerned with the fact that the fan inside the room doesn't function. One of the jurors chooses to keep a tab on the clock lest he gets delayed for a baseball match – justice to be delivered to a young man is least of his concern. While 11 of them are convinced that the boy is guilty of murdering his father, one of them, an architect, thinks otherwise. The film revolves around his arguments, and how the other 11, one by one, concede to his rationale thinking.

The 90-minute film is strictly confined to the idea of toying with facts and possibilities. Devoid of any flashbacks or thought bubbles, the 12 men are idiosyncratic in their arguments. They are conservative men who seem to have a stable socio-economic background, yet director Sidney Lumet has managed to strikingly display each one's past which colours their prejudices, albeit in a subtle way. No wonder then their arguments are laced with acrid personal attacks and comments. This slowly renders a claustrophobic feel to the men who are confined with each other, as they debate on the veracity of the facts at hand.

The dilemma of having to choose between versions of truth – isn't it a familiar territory for cine addicts? The exploration of this premise in films can be traced back to Akira Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' (1950), where an incident of a rape is described differently by different people who were witness to it. 'Rashomon' begins with a frame of a rainy day when nothing is visible, and ends with the rain receding, and the men discussing the rape deduce that human beings are bound to falter in their notions of truth.

Similarly, during one of the high-points in '12 Angry Men', a heavy shower of rain is a welcome change to the heated arguments. That is also when the line between assumptions and facts begin to get jarred, and the verdict among the 12 men slants towards the one who was the lone dissident in the beginning. And, like 'Rashomon', which ends with droplets of rain, '12 Angry Men' too ends with a drier atmosphere. It reflects a cleared cobweb in the air – and fittingly, the 12 men walk out with the consensus that the boy is not guilty of his father's murder.

Can truth have its own different colours? 'Rashomon' begins with the line that is the essence of the film, "I can't understand.. I just can't understand."

This film reflects the mass media today, and the society feeding on it. This again is a personal way of watching the film, with set notions and ideas and experiences in place. However, it is worth painting the argument in a different colour, especially when the country today is in the middle of several hushed-up civil wars of various degrees.

Akin to the character of the architect who begs to differ from the 11 jury members, is a man called Himanshu Kumar who begs to differ from the asinine notion of Naxal violence, as portrayed by the media. The dissenter in the film, played by the gaunt Henry Fonda, chooses to look at the reasons why the boy may have murdered his father, before embarking upon the rhetoric that he cannot be the murderer. Fonda explains that the fact that the boy has had a bad childhood, with some time spent in an orphanage, and an abusive father, does not alone justify that he would knife his father. He explains that the boy had been beaten at least once everyday in his 18 years of life; so it may not be possible that a slight altercation yet again with his father could provoke him to kill. Himanshu Kumar has time and again spoken about the need to understand why a man decides to become a Naxal. He has admitted to have met several of those men, some of them well-read, who are now well-red too. In the capacity of a man who traverses through villages stricken with terror and poverty and hunger, he asserts the imperative need to meet all human beings, without any set prejudices, and give them a fair chance to be heard at least.

Throughout the film, Fonda asserts that he is only toying with a possibility, but is shunned by the others who state the improbability of his views. Himanshu too has been written off by the state government as well as sceptics who choose to condemn only Naxal violence. In the film, Fonda is rebuked for wasting the time of the jury, who acquiesce that the facts laid in the court are nothing but the truth. Fonda argues that the boy did not have the privilege of a good defence lawyer, and hence his point of view could not be heard best. Yet, the jury chooses to assert that the weak witnesses are to be believed as they had spoken under oath.

To prove his point, the dissenter Henry Fonda purchases a switchblade knife similar to the one to found at the site of the murder, to prove his point. Himanshu Kumar meets peoples from various cross sections of the society – even Salwa Judum leaders Chhabindra Karma and Chaitram Atami, receive a warm welcome from the Gandhian (Photograph of Himanshu Kumar and 'friends' taken by Rudra Rakshit Saran)

Taking the leaf from the silver screen into the jungles of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh where Himanshu ran an ashram (before it was bulldozed by the government over flimsy grounds as it could not bear his dissent), can we for a moment try to understand his point of view on why a certain kind of violence is solely condemned? Why does the media bark only about Naxal violence? Why does a loud silence loom over the growing atrocities of the state government over the tribals in Chhattisgarh, which is done in the alibi of flushing out Naxals?

Why is malnutrition in the country, which is another form of violence, not condemned? According to the WHO, if 40 per cent of a nation's population has a body mass index (BMI) of below 18.5, then the situation is nothing short of famine. The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) has indicated that 33 per cent of the Indian population has a BMI of less than 18.5. The difference of seven per cent is nothing congratulatory, because the 33 per cent continues to be the same section of the society which has been deprived for several generations. Isn't this a silent perpetration of violence, which is conveniently overlooked by the media?

Somalia or India - both have been subject to a perpetual violence of a different kind

Fonda claims in the film that as citizens who have been notified by mail to be jurors for the case, it is their responsibility to act fairly by analysing the facts at hand, without letting prejudices obscure the truth. He states, “We have a responsibility and this is a remarkable thing about democracy.” This is the only point in the film where a political remark is made, and that too, rather innocuously. The mass media, which is believed to be the fourth estate of democracy, has a vital role to play in presenting facts. Yet, it is increasingly shedding its innate responsibility. Firstly, there is a growing need for a gruesome 'event' to take place so that the newsprint and the 24 hours can be filled. Second, there is no effort made to understand ground realities. Like the 11 men in the film who lack the desire to understand what happened or alternatively could have happened on the night that the murder was committed, the media chooses to overlook anything that seems to be complicated. It may not actually be so complicated; but a robust dose of laziness is evident in the way they choose to be blind to the bigger picture.

When LN Mittal of Arcelor Mittal Company decided against setting up a mega steel plant in Jharkhand, the media there blatantly screamed, “The God is ready to dessert Jharkhand.” This, they cried, while choosing not to see that the company fired 10,133 of its employees across the world by the end of 2009. Did the media fathom that Mittal would have a heart more benign towards the locals in Jharkhand, whom he promised to hire when his plant would be set up? The media has fed the ambitious middle-class and the laid-back upper class with distorted notions of 'needs' – the need for development is portrayed to be only for the ones living in cities. This development comes at a price, which has to be paid by those who do not have a voice in independent India, like the tribals. The tribals in Chhattisgarh, where every child suffers from kwashiorkor, are being thrown out of their lands, because their land rests on a rich mineral bed. When they could not be bought by meagre compensations, guns were used by the government, which has been pimping its citizens for such profit-hungry companies.

During one of the smaller arguments in '12 Angry Men', when a younger reticent juror begs for pardon before making a statement which he assumes could be offensive, a senior juror yells back, “What are you so polite about?” the young man retorts calmly, “For the same reason you are not – it's the way I was brought up.” Thanks to the media which shouts out that more is less, a generation of unapologetic men and women have been brought up with the idea that somebody has to pay for their development – no matter if that 'somebody' is a tribal who has to walk 50 kms to earn Rs 60 a day by selling firewood.

Starting at 3 am, walking through jungles on a hilly terrain to reach the town at 7 am, and selling the firewood for Rs 60 - urban folk think it justified to sabotage this tribal's land for their own development.

Prejudices shelter the web of lies, which are conveniently accepted. During the course of the film when most of the jurors are slowly convinced that their prejudices were blinding their judgment, one adamant among them categorically states that there could be no doubt that the boy was the murderer as he had come from slums, where fighting was nothing new and they wouldn't care if another is dead. He goes on to state that such kids were born liars. Isn't this a certain kind of deja vu, especially in the way Muslims, tribals and 'slumdogs' are perceived? It is this blind prejudice that is the reason why the only concrete structure and the signs of governance in the villages of Chhattisgarh are police stations only. Similarly, almost any man with a flowing beard and wearing a white cap is perceived to be a Muslim, and at worst, a terrorist. Even more far-fetched is this silent weep of one Muslim weaver in Varanasi:

“Hamaare mohallon mein school baad mein banti hai, police chowki pehle banti hai. Kya musalmaan janam se hee gunahgaar hai?” 

(In our localities schools come later, police stations come first. Is the Muslim born a criminal?)

Sidney Lumet opens '12 Angry Men' with a low-angle shot of the steps leading up to the courtroom, and the camera pans upwards to show the colossal structure. As the camera fixes for a moment on the roof of the building, the next shot shows the interiors of the majestic hall, a view from the domed roof, and the camera looks down upon the people below walking in and out of the building. Fittingly, we look up at the courts of justice where we believe that truth will triumph. However, it is only humans who decide the truth in the court of law. And humans, in their judgment of truth, are flawed.


  1. Great write up! The parallel of journalism with the 12 Angry Men example may not have been so apparent, even to those close to the issue (which makes it even more interesting), but the argument is compelling, persuasive and complete. Thanks for writing!

  2. Well written piece. Isn't 12 Angry Men inspired film is 'Ek Ruka Hua Faisla'?

  3. Hai it is indeed an interesting write up. Just started reading from the post on Avatar then came to 12 angrymen, it seemed like you are choosing a specific style of writing. I would like to comment that you could have added a question mark at the end of the title. There is something in the writing that does not allow you to jump to another window which i do usually when i read on net. It grips. Keep us engaged..

  4. "why the only concrete structure and the signs of governance in the villages of Chhattisgarh are police stations" - No schools, health centres!!

    "Mass media as fourth estate of democracy" - True, responsible journalism can bring wider & effective social change.

    Very aptly put at the end; we look upto the 'trias politica' but it is indeed the people to take the decisions.

    PS: Congratulations, IWMF brought me here and it's time I watch '12 Angry Men'!