Thursday, October 30, 2008

movie law: you're doing it right

Movie Law, like Movie Medicine, tends to sacrifice realism in favor of drama and pacing. I'm generally okay with that, since I really don't want to spend my time off work watching boring lawyers make dry legal arguments and raise evidentiary objections. Sometimes the depictions of law on film do become so unrealistic that they're distracting, and I feel like I'm taking an issue-spotting exam for a law school ethics or evidence class instead of watching a film for entertainment. (I'm looking at you, Intolerable Cruelty.) Whatever the extent of the departure, though, I always expect Movie Law to differ from real law in crucial ways.

And that's why I was so surprised when I watched Veer-Zaara. In the midst of a highly dramatic story, the filmmakers suddenly threw me off with a courtroom scene that was, dare I say, realistic.

The courthouse might be a bit fancier than the ones I've been in, but this Indian film depiction of a fictious Pakistani proceeding is one of the most accurate depictions of a common-law trial court proceeding that I've ever seen in a film. (Of course, please keep in mind that I'm by no means an expert on U.S. law, much less the law anywhere else.) Consider the way the case proceeds:

The judge opens the proceedings and gives the prosecution and then the defense the chance to present their opening arguments. In opening arguments, each side attempts to frame the issues in a favorable way. The judge then permits the prosecution to call its witnesses. The prosecution examines its witnesses, and the defense has a chance to cross-examine the witnesses if it chooses.

To my great surprise, counsel appropriately restrict themselves to asking questions and don't testify, summarize, or argue during the examination of witnesses like Movie Lawyers almost always do. They don't jump in with questions when the other side is conducting the examination. Goodness, they even appropriately pass the witness when they are finished.

Truly disconcerting.

Other law-related aspects of the film rang true for me as well. For instance, you often see lawyers insisting on a yes or no answer to a question that really doesn't allow for a simplistic answer.

Here's a complaint you hear a lot.

And another.

And hey, I've got books just like that on my desk.

Even in more filmi courtroom scenes, Hindi films have occasionally surprised me with randomly realistic occurrences or questions. For instance, I was going along fine with the somewhat unlikely events in Immaan Dharam until they distracted me with the kind of foundational question that's so important in a real examination but rarely shows up in Movie Law. (Movie Lawyers tend to jump right into the heart of the matter without asking the essential foundational questions first.)

I'm pretty sure this exact question has shown up in one or more of the cases I've worked on. It's very disconcerting to see something from real life appear in a masala film.

On the other hand, bailiffs in the US do not dress like this:

Which is rather a pity.


bollyviewer said...

No matter how bad, movie law is still a lot more believable than movie medicine! At least laws are man-made and can be altered. Cant say the same about natural laws and commonsense. But ya, the Veer Zara courtroom was a lot more believable than most Bollywood courtrooms (about the only sensible/believable thing in the whole movie!).

Cindy said...

That's definitely true. It's much easier in real life to get around the laws of perjury or evidence than the laws of physics or genetics.

I really did find the courtroom scene in Veer Zaara quite distracting in its realism, I think because it was such a contrast with the rest of the film.

becky said...

I'm guessing they hoped the realistic court would make the rest more believable. The contrast didn't certainly didn't bother me.

A Smooth Stone said...

I think I saw that guy at Medieval Times!