India Life Stories 
Defeat Is Not Failure

Mohit Satyanand | 01/10/2023

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Sanjoy and I had set up Teamwork Films in 1990, making documentaries and training films rooted in rural India. Then Zee TV was launched in 1992, and we saw a commercial outlet for the skills we had gathered. Over the next three years, we produced a game show, Tol Mol ke Bol, a fiction serial, Newsline, and a muppet-based comedy, Choona Laga Ke. The team expanded, and we were bursting out of the seams of our tiny office in Hauz Khas Enclave.

A broker found us a large first-floor flat just across the road, in Safdarjung Development Area. I went to meet the landlord, a retired Sikh gentleman who lived on the ground floor, and was concerned that the filmy nature of our business entailed late nights and wild parties with starlets. If only…!

I assured him that all shooting was in studios or on location. The office was just that - the admin and planning hub for our work. He wanted to know how many people would work in the office. I gave him the exact number, said we were planning to recruit a few more colleagues, and by year-end, the number would go up to 18-20. That’s fine, he agreed - it is a large space. The rent agreement was signed, and a hefty advance paid. In case of any dispute, he suggested, we should nominate an arbitrator. 

Sure, do you have a name in mind?”

The lawyer he suggested, Mr. Kuldip Chawla, had, by sheer coincidence, extensively advised my father when he was having trouble regaining possession of our home from a sticky tenant. A thorough gentleman; I was happy to sign off on the arbitration clause.

On the day the office was to move, I was traveling. This was before cellphones, so it was only when I got back to Delhi that I heard the landlord had barred entry to our staff unloading the first moving van. This may have been a misunderstanding, as he took fright at the large cooking utensils coming out of the van. 

We won’t be cooking in the office”, I explained to the broker, “this is the wherewithal for location shoots”.

The broker spoke to the landlord, but he said the deal was off. Ah, well, in that case, we want our money back - 3 months rent in advance. Nope, the landlord told the broker, it will take me that long to find a new tenant. I rushed over to Mr. Chawla’s office in Nizamuddin. 

I wish you’d told me, Mohit! The man is a professional litigant”.

I was just so reassured by your name… Anyway, I guess you will now need to arbitrate.”

“My arbitration will not be binding, and there is no way he will accept any fair settlement - you’ll have to go to court.”

Mr. Chawla identified a lawyer to represent us in court. The documents were drawn up, and sureties, by way of investments in government securities, filed. On the day of the first hearing, I met my lawyer in the grim corridors of the Tis Hazari court in Old Delhi. The landlord waited on the opposite side of the corridor with his team. Our case was called within an hour, and preliminary submissions made. 

To my actor’s eye, we were extras in a well-rehearsed drama that lasted all of seven minutes. Most of the lines were given to the clerk of the court, who asked all the questions. Our lawyers answered with extreme brevity and obsequiousness, and the judge largely grunted. Unlike theater, there was no room for emotion here, even for being human. 

Thy visage shall not shift, 

Thy eye not twitch, and,

God Forbid you smile.  

The clerk dismissed us, we bowed to the judge, who didn’t even bother to grunt, and we were back in the grungy corridors. 

“What happens next?” I asked my lawyer.

Let’s see when we get the next date.”

“And then?”

“Our case is very strong. Ho jaayegaa.”

“How long will it take?”

“Sir, teen-chaar saal toh lagengey hi.”

Three-four years! Three-four years of returning to these grimy corridors, to dark chambers whose protocol demands a funereal mien. Three-four years of juggling shooting dates with court appearances? 

You won’t have to attend all the hearings, Sir!”

To be honest, also three-four years of juggling court dates with my time in the mountains, which was becoming more and more precious, more intrinsic to my soul. This was too much of an ask.

Let’s withdraw our case.” I told my lawyer.

But, Sir, we will win, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure you’re right, but I don’t think I can go through with it.”

The lawyer looked like protesting again, then looked at me, and shrugged. I shook hands with him and asked him to submit his bill for payment.

The sum I had just written off was substantial for our small enterprise. As I steered my borrowed car out of the crowded parking of Tis Hazari, I asked myself whether I was being cowardly. Even before the first blow had been struck, I had accepted defeat at the hands of an unethical man, a ‘professional litigant’, in the words of his own lawyer. Surely I should have fought what was, by all accounts, the good fight.

But that was my mind talking to itself. My emotional being felt violated by the indignity of the process - the amorality of my opponent, the outreached hands of the court chaprassi, the mask of the judge, the disregard for the citizen’s time and inconvenience. The further I drove from the court, the better I felt for having decided never to return. 

Defeat is not always a binary. Defeat doesn’t announce the time of its arrival. 

I lost the day I signed a deed with a man whose being I had not assessed. 

That day, at Tis Hazari, I won, because I respected my own being.

This article was first published on Mohit Satyanand's substack.

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