Kanoon is a very rare film considering its very nature. It is so rare that it’s very existence is a reason to celebrate for the Bollywood buffs. It is not only a songless film, which are rare in Bollywood even now, but also a taut courtroom thriller, again a genre nearly tried out even now. Unlike most of the frivolous and logo defying thrillers churned out by Bollywood over decades, Kanoon sets itself apart by its keen attention to legal and procedural details and its ability to ask questions that are still pertinent. It is a wonder why this film is not as celebrated as some of other films of that era. It is by no means a obscure, small film. It was made by BR Chopra, one of the most successful producer directors of all time, and starred Ashok Kumar, Rajndra Kumar and Nanda, some of the top stars of that era. Probably it is not remembered fondly even by Bollywood buffs for the very reason that it eschews the usual Bollywood elements including lip synced songs, melodrama and sickeningly sweet romance.
The story is about Kailash, a young lawyer Kailash (Rajndra Kumar), who seems to be having a great career. He is not only good at work but has also nailed the socially alliance because he is set to marry Meena (Nanda), the daughter of powerful Justice Badri Prasad (Ashok Kumar), thus leaving us in no doubt about his bright future. However, things get complicated as he witnesses a murder accidentally, and thinks he sees his would be father in law doing it. He carries the weight of this grave secret with great pain, confusion and dilemma. The case reaches court and Badri Prasad himself presides over the case while Kailash gets involved too in the prosecution. So, what should Kailash do now? Follow his conscience and make a powerful enemy out of his most potent benefactor?
Kanoon ponders over issues like nature of justice, implications of capital punishment and results of potential judicial blunders. It also makes people think about the nature of evidences and eyewitness accounts and their trustworthiness. It is a film about asking difficult questions rather than offering crowd pleasing answers. BR Chopra at his peak, like most others of that generation, had a socially conscious side that did not shy away from exploring difficult and potentially polemic topics, a trait that was gradually lost by subsequent generations of these Bollywood film makers. In a way, Kanoon is closer to the some Hollywood classics of the golden age, such as Witness for the Prosecution in style and treatment rather than any other Bollywood film.
But apart from the honourable intentions, what sets Kanoon apart is the sheer craft of BR Chopra. It is probably the tightest screenplay of his long and illustrious career and he makes no compromises whatsoever for the sake of populism. There are no songs because the story does not demand one. Chopra refuses to fall for cheap populism and delivers an irresistible combination of courtroom drama and murder mystery. He also brings out the best of both the Kumars, especially Rajendra Kumar gets to do a rare non-romantic role here and does it effectively. Even as the film reaches its climax, it remains very hard to guess the ending. When it does come, it does not only end the story but make people rethink the whole episode. Not everyone might be happy to realize that they were being mislead the whole time, but at the same time they should note how this conceit makes them realize the folly of jumping into conclusions. This, in my opinion, is the biggest success of this film.