If you are called upon to decide on a matter of grave import, especially one in the public domain, how do you ensure you are judging well rather than being judgmental?
This compelling thought lies at the heart of the all-time classic 12 Angry Men. Penned by Reginald Rose in 1954, the play has been adapted into several formats and languages across the world, and continues to do so 60 years on. I myself have seen a Hollywood movie (the legendary Sidney Lumet’s 1957 version, starring luminaries such as Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb), a Bollywood film (1986’s Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, featuring a who’s-who of theatre and cinema stalwarts – Pankaj Kapur, Annu Kapoor, KK Raina – and directed by another great, Basu Chatterjee), a school play (performed by Standard XII students), and most recently, a contemporised version (by as-if-presciently-named-for-this-play Rage Productions of Mumbai). ‘Contemporised’ because, conscious of the need to be inclusive, the play is now named 12 Angry Jurors and features an almost equal number of women (five) in the cast.
The story though remains the same. An 18-year boy (technically, some would say a man) is accused of murdering his abusive father. The court proceedings over, the 12-member jury (the 12 in the title) now moves to the inner room to decide – and if needed, deliberate – on the boy’s fate. However, there seems to be no need for deliberation, as 11 have decided ‘Guilty’. But wait, as one has decided ‘Not Guilty’, there seems to be need for some discussion. The 11 though are flummoxed: how can one person not believe the boy is guilty when all evidence, witnesses, and as damningly, an overwhelming majority of them are saying so? What starts off as a tiny spark ignited by Juror 8 (the one believing the boy is innocent) leads slowly but surely toward an incendiary climax, as not just thoughts and arguments but accusations and threats are exchanged (the anger in the title). So, do the jurors remain enraged till the end, or do they become placative and reach a unanimous decision one way or the other (the requirement of the court)? In case you haven’t seen the play or any of its avatars, will leave you to discover the denouement for yourself.
What is worth deliberating on however are the themes the play / movie explores. The tendency to evaluate something or someone only through one’s own (coloured) lenses. Juror 10 is unrelenting: the boy is guilty and needs to hang simply because he’s from the slums and “those people” are always like that. Prejudices, it is clear, run deep. And it appears, so do bad experiences, especially if they are close to home. Juror 3 wages the toughest, and roughest, battle against Juror 8. The reason? Juror 3 has had a strained relationship with his son, and having failed to resolve matters with his own kid, wants the accused kid to suffer in a vicious, vicarious form of retribution. And one juror, No. 7, has the flimsiest, whimsiest reason for sticking to his stance: he has tickets for a game and so wants the discussion to wind up asap, especially as all but one of them hold the boy guilty.
Bias, negativity, slapdash judgment… All themes as relevant in today’s social media-fuelled times, when people are quick to ascribe fault and guilt to a situation or a person without bothering to get to the truth. Because that takes time, effort and intellect. All of which seem to be in short supply these days.
It’s not all despairing though. The play urges you to stand up for what you believe is right, even when the world stands against you. Juror 8 fights alone for the longest time. When asked if the boy could really be innocent when the evidence, witness statements, and presently, most jurors are disfavoured to him, his constant response is a simple “It’s possible.” He merely wants to explore the possibility that the boy is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for, given that his life is at stake? The play also holds that it’s alright to waver, to not be sure. Juror 12 does what looks like a flip-flop in the eyes of the others: now she believes he’s guilty, now she believes he’s not. It’s ok, the play seems to say, to change your viewpoint as you receive more information. After all, it shows you are willing to be flexible, and more importantly, to think.
Not surprisingly, six decades on, 12 Angry Men (Jurors) remains a telling commentary on the way most people think and believe when it comes to others. And the way they truly ought to.