Justice, truth and the real world of Chaitanya Tamhane's National Award-winning film, Court

Deepanjana Pal

Sep 23, 2015 21:30:54 IST

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 14 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.

When Chaitanya Tamhane's Court was screened at last year's Mumbai Film Festival, there was a stampede to enter the auditorium. Inside, every seat was occupied, many sat on the steps and violent threats were issued to anyone who dared to try and save a seat. Outside, chaos reigned. Bearded and bespectacled hipsters waved fists in the air. Well-coiffed fashionistas elbowed those around them.

The reason for this tsunami of interest was that just months before Mumbai Film Festival, Court had won two awards at the 71st Venice International Film Festival. One of them was the prestigious Lion of the Future award for the best first feature.

For Mumbai's film-loving crowd, Tamhane was living the dream. His was an honest-to-goodness indie film that didn't have any Bollywood big shot's backing and was winning acclaim on its merit alone. Now, less than a year later, Court will be released commercially, which is a feat that few award-winning Indian indies manage. Take Kanu Behl's Titli for instance. The critically-acclaimed film has been screened all over the world, including at Cannes Film Festival, but is yet to show up in Indian cinemas even though it's backed by Bollywood heavyweight, Yash Raj Films.

It's worth noting the tiny detail that Court was made truly independently. Not even the usual suspects of Mumbai's indie film community were involved in it. Both Tamhane and Vivek Gomber, who produced and acted in Court, were better known among the city's theatre crowd than by the film community until the film started winning prizes and awards. At 21, Tamhane had written and directed a play titled Grey Elephants in Denmark that made theatre critics sit up and pay attention to this new entrant. Gomber - who has spent years in Mumbai plays, acting in English theatre - met Tamhane when he joined the cast of Grey Elephants in Denmark. Set in the world of magicians, the play offered no hints about Tamhane's film ambitions.

While the response to Court may be termed magical, the film's subject is unforgivingly real. It's not about the flamboyant and triumphant judiciary that saves the day in so many reel and real life situations. Tamhane doesn't walk into the haloed higher courts where judgments like the scrapping of Section 66A are enacted. Instead, Court takes us to the humble rooms of lower courts of Mumbai, where concepts like freedom of expression and democracy are dismissed casually and regularly.

The French filmmaker Robert Bresson said, "My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water." Court has the layered complexity that Bresson talks about in that quote. The script teems with real-life references and insights that come from having observed life in Mumbai closely. This authenticity goes far beyond the film's superb production design.

For instance, Dalit rights activist Vira Sathidar, who plays the protagonist Narayan Kamble, has actually been arrested and interrogated by the police without explanation. In Court, Kamble is accused of abetting a stranger's suicide by singing a song about the harshness of Dalit existence at a public performance. If that sounds absurd to you, keep in mind the kind of harassment Sathidar has faced in real life.

 Justice, truth and the real world of Chaitanya Tamhanes National Award-winning film, Court

A screengrab from the film, Facebook.

In 2006, Sathidar was interrogated for two days and 200 of the books (written by the likes of Dr. Ambedkar) he had brought to sell at a Dalit convention were seized. From the fact that the case filed against Sathidar was registered under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, selling books can apparently be considered conspiring to commit a terrorist act. At least in this case, reality may well be more farcical than fiction.

Among the most powerful moments in Court are the scenes with Sharmila, the widow of the municipal worker who committed suicide according to the prosecution. Her part is played by Usha Bane, who is not an actress but is perhaps familiar with the callousness of the system since Bane's husband was an ambulance driver and killed in a mishap.

The cynicism and bitterness in Tamhane's script is accented with wit and humour that actually sharpens Court's edges rather than softening the film's blows. Even as you register the bleakness of the scene, you find yourself laughing at the morbid bits of absurdity that Tamhane has included in so much of Court. Like the city in which its set, the film keeps moving sure-footedly and without pausing to let anyone catch their breath or take a moment to register the horror of what's unfolding.

At the same time, Tamhane has empathy for every character; even the prosecutor who treats Kamble's case with such callousness. As a storyteller, he lingers here and there, allowing the audience to glimpse past the obvious, public persona that a character erects in order to survive the big city.

That's really what gives Court its sense of realism. Yes, everyone and everything looks authentic, but more importantly, how everyone in Court reacts to the unfolding events is pitch perfect. The tone is matter-of-fact and everything in the film, including justice, is restrained.

In many ways, its aesthetics and idealism make Court feel reminiscent of Indian parallel cinema of the 1970s. However, Tamhane's storytelling is distinctively contemporary and he's careful to ensure Court doesn't become preachy, self-indulgent or slow (standard problems that make so many Indian parallel film classics seem dated today). Perhaps one of the more depressing aspects of placing Court in the chronology of Indian cinema is realising that Tamhane's film belongs to a tradition of cinematic dissent that couldn't pierce our apathy as a society.

What is worth optimism, however, is that Court got made, got screened, got awards and evoked at least one stampede. That's quite obviously a judgment in its favour.

Updated Date: Sep 23, 2015 21:30:18 IST