April 17, 2015
Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vira Sathidar, Pradeep Joshi
Marathi with Hindi, English, Gujarati
It’s the simplest of films, yet unimaginably complex. It’s straightforward yet marvelously thoughtful. In its understatement lies melodrama. In its refusal to dress itself up lies its richness. Without uttering a single acerbic word, Court delivers a scathing indictment of India’s sluggish judicial processes and the wily ways in which freedom of expression is suppressed, throwing in insights about gender inequality, systemic buck-passing, archaic laws, caste and class.
At the centre of the free speech debate is a dead man. Sewage worker Vasudev Pawar’s body is discovered in a manhole in Mumbai. Pawar’s poverty and the government’s culpability in his work circumstances are blithely ignored. Instead, the elderly Dalit folk singer Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) is arrested and tried in court on the charge of performing an inflammatory song that allegedly prompted the suicide. Yes, it’s that absurd – as life often is.
The film is mainly devoted to the trial in a lower court in Mumbai, with the camera also occasionally wandering into the personal lives of the three primary players in that room: public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi) and defence lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, also the film’s producer).
It’s hard to believe this film had a script, but it did. If the credits and publicity material did not mention that debutant director Chaitanya Tamhane is also the writer of Court, it would be natural to assume that what’s playing out on screen is a reality show set in a Mumbai court.
If you have ever visited the not-so-hallowed halls of India’s judiciary – from the lowest to the highest rungs – or had the misfortune of being involved in a legal wrangle, you would know where that statement is coming from. Real courts across the world are rarely as energetic, glamorous or filled with impressive oratory as we see in most Indian films and the American legal serials routinely telecast in India. Ally McBeal’s short skirts, Alan Shore’s politically incorrect gimmickry, the cliches of desi courtroom-ery and the highly dramatic “tareekh pe tareekh” speechifying in Damini are the stuff that fiction is made of.
Real life legal tangles – especially in India with its desperate need for judicial reform – are tedious, frustrating and boring, peopled with lawyers and judges who read the law literally and are often apathetic beyond belief. When defence counsel Vora in this film, for instance, tells Judge Savarte that it would be unjust to keep Kamble in custody since the court is going on vacation for a month, the judge nonchalantly reminds him: only the lower courts will be on a break, you can always apply for bail in a higher court.
Moments like these are designed to exasperate. The hard knocks of life tend to pare down our reactions though – that’s what we see in the testimony of the dead man’s wife (Usha Bane), as she matter-of-factly describes his horrific work conditions, recounts how he would get drunk before leaving for work so that he could tolerate the stench in the sewer and how he used to hit her. Her lack of emotion is chilling.
It would have been nice to get better acquainted with Narayan Kamble though, as we do the two lawyers and the judge. This man is the victim of the judicial morass we witness and the target of a state witch hunt, yet his singing on stage remains spirited. Which makes you wonder why we don’t get to see more of him off stage. Is this because the feisty revolutionary might have disturbed the film’s otherwise muted tone?
That concern notwithstanding, Court is a cinematic triumph. Mrinal Desai’s camerawork and the production design by Pooja Talreja and Somnath Pal are in tune with the film’s title and narrative: unadorned, to the point. The acting is, without exaggeration, perfect; so real that the ‘actors’ come across as real people who are unaware that we’re watching their lives.
It is also refreshing to see a film that does not romanticise the oppressed classes or tar every person of privilege with a judgemental brush. Vasudev Pawar’s penury is heartbreaking, but the film maker does not paint him or his wife as saints; Vora is a well-off man who can afford liesurely evenings with alcohol, jazz and friends, but that aspect of his life is not used to diminish his activism or his commitment to Kamble’s liberty and rights.
The dialogues are in Marathi, Hindi, English and Gujarati because people in that milieu would naturally speak those languages. Many Indian films over the past century have been set in courtrooms. In this decade, one of the best, most plausible of the lot has been 2013’s Bollywood offering Jolly LLB. Still, the film had a star – the charismatic Arshad Warsi – playing the lead, and outside the courtroom, a romance, song and dance. Court is shorn of all the above.
The proceedings in this film are bizarre to the point of being tragic, so farcical that it’s almost comical, cruel in such a low-key fashion that that hyperbolic word seems out of place.
Tamhane has redefined realism with his maiden feature. Court is an incredibly impactful film.
Rating (out of five): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
Photograph courtesy: Parull Gossain Publicists