Court review: Finally a film on the Indian legal system with more insight than 'tareekh pe tareekh'

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Sep,23 2015 17:46 50 IST

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 17 April, 2015. In light of the fact that this film has been nominated as India’s entry to the Oscar’s, we are re-publishing it for your perusal.

By Menaka Rao

An ageing folk singer-performer and Dalit activist, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) is arrested during a performance in a Mumbai slum. The charge: allegedly abetting conservancy worker Vasudev Pawar's suicide. Kamble, according to the police, performed an explosive song which incited Pawar to kill himself by drowning himself in a manhole. Perhaps because of the total lack of drama in the way all this unfolds and the matter-of-fact nature of the arrest, the absurdity and the irony of the charge and Kamble's arrest is biting.

Vira Sathidar, who plays Narayan Kamble, in a still from Court. Image Courtesy: Facebook

Vira Sathidar, who plays Narayan Kamble, in a still from Court. Image Courtesy: Facebook

Reality is surreal business in Chaitanya Tamhane's award-winning film, Court. Inspired perhaps by the state witch-hunts of dissenting activists like Dr Binayak Sen, Vilas Ghogre, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and members of Kabir Kala Manch, Tamhane's film languidly moves through the workings of a court case in Mumbai.

Slowly, it unravels the social reality of the conservancy worker and the blatant, political arrests in lower courts. Why did a “gutter-cleaner” enter a manhole without any equipment? Was it because, as the state suggests, that Pawar was driven to kill himself because he heard Kamble's songs? What kind of equipment is he given by the municipality? What kind of a life does his profession afford him?

And then there's the social activist-cum-singer Kamble, who actually does want to write a song about suicide — not because he wants to incite people to such acts, but because nothing else communicates the hopelessness he sometimes feels about Dalit lives. Sathidar, who plays Kamble, should know. He's a human rights activist in real life and editor of the radical Nagpur-based publication, Vidrohi. The songs he sings as Kamble were voiced by Sambhaji Bhagat, a friend of Vilas Ghogre, the Dalit poet and activist who committed suicide to protest the 1997 killing of Dalit residents of Ramabai Colony, in Mumbai.

Much of Court is akin to a real life courtroom, where cases often unfold without drama. It's as though they have no bearing on real life, as though reality is different inside the four walls of a courtroom. For instance, hearing Pawar's wife talk dispassionately in court about her husband's working conditions, is a powerful scene because it's treated sensitively. Without any of the usual filmi melodrama, it points the accusing finger at the institution that treats employees so callously.

Watching Court, I was reminded at times of the Shakti Mills gang-rape trial, in which the mothers of the accused stepped into the witness box and spoke of their dire poverty and lack of opportunities as proof of mitigating circumstances. You couldn't help but notice the complete lack of state apathy.

Court subtly but incisively presents a considered look at the power of a judge. Judges are expected to be neutral, but they are as human as anyone else. The judge can chide a 'scared' witness for not turning up in court, or not hear the case of a woman because she has not dressed appropriately (short sleeves are frowned upon by the court, we're informed). Also, the film touches upon how draconian laws such as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2008 and archaic colonial laws such as Dramatic Performances Act, 1876 affect lives of people and our civil liberties.

Using the lives of the characters of the courtroom — the defence lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge — Court presents an interesting study of the system. The defence lawyer, Vinay Vora, (Vivek Gomber) is also a human rights activist; loves his jazz and beer, and is clearly well off. But his social status does not deter him from being sensitive to his clients.

The prosecutor, Nutan (superbly played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) is a typical working mother in Mumbai, who rushes home every day in a local train, cooks for her family and then makes time to pore over the cases she handles. However, she is completely disinterested in her cases and handles them clinically. All she's interested in is getting the highest punishment for the accused.

Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi) looks into the nitty-gritty of case and also believes in numerology and certain gems with health benefits. Incidentally, one retired judge, who handled a prominent case, also believed in numerology and convicted a certain number of people for the same reason. So for those who think Tamhane's being imaginative with his characters, he isn't.

The production design, by Pooja Talreja and Somnath Pal, is simply superb. Fittingly for a film titled Court, the courtroom is spot on, with its peeling walls, portraits of freedom fighters, and the accused kept like a herd of goats in a pen. The gritty settings of Mumbai, like the chawls, slums, pandals and police station, also look quite genuine.

Since the film is preoccupied with reality and is very documentary-like in its feel, I do have a few bones to pick. While I can attest for the authenticity of the physical depiction of the courtroom and the characters around it, it must be noted that a regular trial in a lower court is conducted very differently. For instance, an accused like Kamble would usually not be a witness in the trial, let alone the very first witness. While public prosecutors do confuse witnesses and slip in leading questions now and then, to my experience, it's never as blatant as it is in Court. The prosecutor asks Kamble a series of questions to the witness as though she is cross-examining him, which is simply not allowed.

Also, defence lawyers would cross-examine every witness and ask leading questions. In real life, Vora's strategy would have made him a terrible defence advocate. He hardly objects and does not even cross-examine important witnesses (like the eyewitness, for instance). The central premise that a prosecutor examines a witness and a defence cross examines the same person is lost in Court. I do feel that correcting a few nuances like this would have helped make the film closer to truth. Our legal system, despite its rigid procedures, does (more or less allow) for all the characters in a trial to have a say.

Having said this, Court does offer a wonderful portrayal of India's legal system. Given what Bollywood titles ranging from Damini to Jolly LLB have done to caricature the courtroom, this film is long overdue. Court comes closest to showing how an actual court functions. It captures the impact those undramatic courtrooms have on people who are unwittingly trapped in the labyrinth justice system.

Menaka Rao is a freelance journalist from Mumbai. She writes on health and law.

Published Date: Sep 23, 2015 17:46 PM | Updated Date: Sep 23, 2015 17:46 PM