There are only a few Indian films that are not laced with lavish dance sequences, clichéd romance and action elements, cheesy dialogues and yet are so enthralling with the simple, raw and honest portrayal of their content that all the aforementioned ingredients matter not. Needless to say, Chaitanya Tamhane’s directorial debut “Court” is one of those films. This multilingual debut won numerous awards at various film festivals including the prestigious “Lion of The Future Award” at the Venice Film Festival, the National Award for best feature and also earned its rightful place as India’s official entry for the 88th Academy Awards.
To make the readers a little familiar with the film, here’s a quick synopsis:
An ageing folk singer (a Dalit social activist who uses folk music to spread his message) is accused of having roused a manhole worker to commit suicide through one of his songs and is arrested on the charge of “Abetment of Suicide”. What follows is a never-ending trial in a lower Mumbai Sessions Court filled with ridiculous evidences, redundant and manipulative questioning, stock witnesses, fabricated charges and so many delays.
The unreasonable suppression of such social activists by the State via legal means is the major theme of the film. The absurd arrest of Narayan Kamble (the folk singer), the seriousness with which such a nonsensical case is pursued by the police, the judge assigning innumerable ‘next dates’ to the case, the prosecutor gathering every single argument she can to ensure that the poor old man doesn’t get a bail is a crystal clear mirror image of how in real life these social activists are subjected to the “legal violence” by the state.
And while the above-mentioned theme is the film’s major concern, Tamhane, with his brilliantly crafted screenplay also uses this trial to mock the professionals associated with the trial by giving us an insight into their personal lives. The Prosecutor – as mentioned above – after making sure that an old man with deteriorating health rots in police custody, goes to her home and cooks food for her family, goes shopping with them and afterwards they all enjoy a play.
The biggest strength of the film is its characters. Interestingly enough, Narayan Kamble (the man accused) is not the central character in the film. In fact, there is no main character. We are not told the story from any one character’s point of view but are rather provided with a holistic viewing of the subject matter. It must also be noted that the issues raised in Court are not new to the audiences. They have been raised before in other films as well. But it is the brutally honest treatment given to these issues here that makes Court stand out.
The film is neither ambitious nor epic – in scale or runtime – it follows a simple non-linear narrative structure with some long shots and scenes which may seem ‘unnecessary’ to some viewers. The film is simply and modestly structured. Except it is not. The simplicity of the film is an understatement. A close viewing reveals how cleverly the scenes have been aligned one after the other to mock the Legal System step-by-step. Several trivial short sequences have been inserted in between the story which further adds to its sarcastic sensibility. For instance, in one scene, the judge gives another date to Kamble and dismisses him. Then he calls the next case and a girl shows up in a bright coloured top and jeans. The judge refuses to hear her case saying that the dress one wears in a court should be light coloured and modest and therefore, she must come on another date in the “Proper” dress-code.
The casting of the film is brilliant and given the fact that it took about seven months, it had to be. It must also be noted that the film features a cast of newcomers many of which are not professionally trained actors. Still, they are made the best use of. Vira Sathidar is brilliant as Narayan Kamble, as is producer Vivek Gomber who plays defence lawyer Vinay Vora. The rest of the cast is pleasing too.
Although brilliant, the film does suffer from some drawbacks. While the absence of nonsensical dance sequences works in its favour, the absence of a background score works against it. It is understandable that Tamhane wanted to keep it as “Raw” as possible, but the presence of a good background score would have had enhanced its impact nevertheless. Moreover, the film is shot with non-professional actors and several long-duration takes which may lead to the viewers becoming irritable. However, it is a bold move on the part of a first-time director and works well to give the audience a realistic feel and connection with what is happening inside the courtroom.
Also, the ending of the film leaves us a bit unsatisfied. The whole sequence of ‘The Justice goes on vacation while the man under-trial rots in custody’ is a bit uneasy.
But, notwithstanding all the shortcomings owing to its budget or the first time outing of Tamhane, the film tackles its strong subject matter with brutal honesty and sheer brilliance.
Court is a hopeful development in Indian cinema especially in a time where commercial filmmaking is dominating the market, and the space for sensible and critical films is narrowing. Chaitanya Tamhane has certainly made a place for himself as one of the most sensible and austere young directors around the world and we eagerly wait for his future ventures. It will be absolutely correct to say that Court was India’s best shot at the Oscars in Years!
Alyasa Abbas is a high-school student from U.P. India. He has a keen interest in discovering innovative and groundbreaking films and books. His short stories and poems have been published in eFiction India. His other interests include Critique, Economics and watching FRIENDS repeatedly!