It is hazardous to lavishly praise a film by a young
director; it might go to his head. In the case of 28-year-old Chaitanya
Tamhane, director of the Marathi film Court, the risk is worth taking.
Four years earlier, at 24, he made Six Strands, a short
film, a fictional take on the tea industry around Darjeeling district in West
Bengal. It was centred on a gifted but evil woman who could have stepped out of
the magic realism fiction of Latin America. It was full of technical tricks
picked up from advertising films. How the boy show-off has matured into a
gifted, full-grown adult in just four years is a matter for celebration. Court,
based on real happenings, ushers in a new kind of cinema in India—serious,
It is about a Dalit folk singer, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), arrested in Mumbai for abetting the suicide of a municipal sewage worker. The police are convinced that the man killed himself after listening to a song by his fellow Dalit, Kamble, when he performed in a locality for the poor. Kamble is defended by a public-spirited young lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, also producer of the film).
The defendant is fearless, stubborn and committed. His lawyer is equally committed to his client; the only problem is that he is naïve and unfamiliar with the fiendishly contorted functioning of sessions courts and is time and again stymied by seemingly illogical procedures and the people who implement them.
Tamhane, who is also the screenplay writer, tells his story
in a cool, detached manner,
leavened with ironic wit and paradox. The upright judge (Pradeep Joshi), it transpires three-quarters of the way into the film, is a right-wing Hindu who will harass Kamble and his inexperienced lawyer by sticking to the letter of the law without bringing into play his humanity, intelligence or imagination. He believes in following the law literally, no matter how illogical or inhuman it may appear to be.
But he’s human, too, witty in an off-hand manner and appears to be doing his job. Deep down, however, he considers people like Kamble and his liberal bourgeois Gujarati lawyer enemies who swim against the tide of Indian culture. People who challenge Manu the law-giver will be put in their place, by low cunning if necessary.
When the ailing Kamble can no longer be kept under legal detention for lack of evidence, the judge releases him on bail knowing full well that his quarry—the word is used advisedly—will sooner than later offend the state. He proves right. The irrepressible folk singer gives an open-air performance (like all his previous ones) castigating the upper-caste, upper-class combine that runs and thus owns the government machinery for treating Dalits as a lesser species of life.
Kamble is immediately re-arrested and produced before the same judge. The poor, irascible singer is asked to furnish a bond of `1 lakh. The judge is confident he will be stumped this time, but his lawyer comes up with the money. Instead of being happy, Kamble is angry. When Vora visits him in hospital, Kamble, ill and cantankerous, scolds him for posting the bond. He says he was going to challenge the state by giving another public performance as soon as possible.
He is true to his word. The old folk singer is arrested yet again.
His lawyer pleads with the judge to let his client go on account of failing health and advancing age, and is politely told that in the law there is no such provision for a habitual offender. But the lawyer and his client are free to file an appeal in the High Court after the three-month summer vacation that begins the next day! Thus the process of seeking justice becomes even more illusory.
ourt is the very opposite of the lurid melodrama that commercial Indian, particularly Hindi cinema, has churned out over decades where lawyers try to influence legal proceedings with cheap histrionics. The entire story of the unjustly, indeed illegally arrested Narayan Kamble, is told in a precise, cool style but not without a sly sense of humour and genuine compassion. The director reveals a cinematic temperament that is more Zen-like than Indian. This is neither an endorsement of snobbery nor a criticism of an authentic “dramatic” Indian approach towards the making of a film on such a subject; it is an appreciation of a certain kind of mind that has clarity, intelligence, wit, humour, compassion and a commitment to social justice. One does not know what kind of cinema Tamhane is going to make in the future, but going by this film, his career is worth watching.
Everything about this film from the acting, direction, production design, music, cinematography, sound design is focused on achieving one goal, a believable world that is silly, prosaic, cruel, with its share of vulnerable idealists, cranky, committed, admirable fighters, misguided, prejudiced administrators with ordinary troubles, frustrations and dreams, and seekers of dignity who have been deprived of the basic necessities of life.
he sessions court looks like the dull, dreary place it is in real life. Time hangs heavy on the hands of litigants, summoned by the law, mainly Dalits going by their names, and those who mete out justice or whatever passes for it. Judges try to stick to the rule book, perhaps too literally. There is the unspoken desire to maintain status quo above all else.
People speak as they do in real life, neither too softly nor too loudly, without overemphasis, a pleasure to hear and a welcome contrast to the theatrical posturing of actors playing similar roles in commercial cinema. In the quest for reality, or his conception of it, Tamhane does not follow naturalism blindly. He uses it with intelligence. The world he creates is entirely plausible.
The public prosecutor played with such eloquent ease by Geetanjali Kulkarni, is a stickler for rules and “literal” interpretation of the law, even if it is archaic and morally reprehensible. Kamble, the rebel with a cause does not stand a chance because she considers him, in her heart of hearts, socially undesirable. No matter how persuasively his young lawyer tries to convince the judge of his innocence she in her calm, unruffled, seemingly fair manner quotes from obscure sections of the law concerning the case and argues in favour of keeping the (falsely) accused in police detention! But like any other woman she has a life of her own. She has a husband, daughter, son, both school-going, and a home to run.
Madam Public Prosecutor is a middle-class woman who travels by local train. On one of her journeys she discusses the possibility of cooking all family meals in olive oil but is dissuaded by the woman sitting next to her who declares that it would be far too expensive despite claims to the contrary by TV endorsements. The ordinariness of this scene is oddly touching. There are other complicated angles to her life.
There is a droll scene at home in a loose kaftan, talking on her mobile while adding spice to a dish being cooked. The scene is extended with quietly sexist undertones. Her husband, seated on a chair, is watching television with his dinner in front of him on a small table. The son is sitting on the bed, also eating and watching TV. The daughter, older of the siblings, is on the floor, with her back to the viewer, glued to the screen.
In her avatar as wife and mother, she comes in to ask the boy if he would like another helping. His sister is not asked. The scene ends quietly, but not before revealing the cramped quarters of this family, like millions of other middle-class people in Mumbai. The builders have not been able to make substantial inroads in these places as yet.
She is a hard-working woman. In the very short coda to the scene just mentioned she is seen, presumably late at night, still in her kaftan studying legal documents. Tamhane brings out the human, ordinary side of her existence here as he does in other scenes.
Her political leanings, and presumably that of her husband, are revealed when they go out to see a popular Marathi play along with their children. They first have a meal in a middle-class Maharashtrian restaurant and then proceed for the entertainment. The venue is a theatre where erstwhile luminaries of the Marathi musical and drama worlds have presented their art; their portraits hang on the wall by the staircase leading to the entrance.
The play is supposed to be a comedy and has the audience roaring with laughter in a scene where a young Maharashtrian girl’s Bihari suitor, a migrant, turns up with his father to ask for his beloved’s hand. The girl’s father in a bantering tone asks the prospective son-in-law his name that his alert daughter converts to a Marathi sounding one.
The scene continues for a while till the boy is caught out. Then the girl’s father launches into a tirade about how the trusting local Maharashtrian has been duped time and again of his livelihood, dignity and, on occasion, the sanctity of his home. The father walks upstage, assumes a Bal Thackeray-like pose and declares that the Marathi manoos will brook no more nonsense from outsiders. The actor is greeted with thunderous applause by a clearly empathetic audience.
inay Vora, Kamble’s lawyer, drives a nice-sized foreign car, listens to jazz on its music system, shops in up-market delicatessens, and is doted on by his traditional Gujarati parents. His mother adores him and his father puts up with idealistic “foibles” in good humour, though he is not above pulling his son’s leg occasionally. He may be western educated, liberal minded, and believe the law must be the same for everyone regardless of religion, caste and class. The legal system must function impartially but compassionately at all times, is his passionate conviction.
His lack of experience in the lower courts makes it easy for the judge and the prosecutor to trick him. Both are conditioned by their social and religious prejudices. He is stubborn as well as vulnerable. After a meal with his parents in an expensive vegetarian restaurant, he is caught on leaving the premises by the followers of an obscure religious sect he has disparaged in court and has his face blackened by them, mercifully off-screen. He cries alone in his room, back to the viewer. The next scene is comic; he is getting a facial at a barber’s saloon!
The judge is a jolly good fellow with his own set of prejudices. He is in his element leading a gaggle of men and women to a resort with facilities for water sports; singing old Hindi film songs with his friends, playing a game of “Antakshari” on the bus.
Learning that a young acquaintance’s small son is not speaking more than a couple of words, not only does he recommend that he see an astrologer, but also wear a particular gem stone. In the evening, having a drink with friends, he talks about the astronomical salaries that young graduates from the IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) are getting. The “vacation” sequence is all about the aspirations of the Indian middle-class with along its baggage of superstition and perhaps bigotry.
The judge, before embarking on the trip with his friends, breaks a coconut, shouting “Ganapati Bappa Morya”. His sentiments are reciprocated by his fellow travellers.
One may ask where in all this does the Dalit folk singer Kamble fit? He doesn’t. He must stay in jail till the three-month vacation is over and hope his young lawyer will secure his release so that he can go back to the streets singing about the very many injustices against the Dalits and get arrested again. The system, of course, belongs to the upper classes and the upper castes.
amhane hangs on to a scene quite a bit more after it is “over”; it would make a commercial filmmaker squirm and the viewers of his films as well. But in Court the flow of life integrates in its movement the scene that may have concluded a bit earlier. The myriad resonances in/of life find an echo in what the viewer has just seen, or rather participated in. It is quite possible that Tamhane has seen the films of the Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu and imbibed from him the idea of the “shot” vibrating with the unseen but nevertheless felt energies that constitute the very flow of life.
How the young director could absorb such a vital lesson and make it a part of his cinematic vocabulary is something to be lauded. He is wholeheartedly helped in this endeavour by cinematographer Mrinal Desai. The photographic style is refined and disciplined; mid-close, medium, mid-long and long shots tell the story. There are very few close-ups in this film. Commercial films, on the other hand, depend on fetching close-ups of stars to make up for a synthetic narrative.
To come back to the story: there is really no evidence against Kamble to suggest, let alone prove, that his song exhorting Dalits to commit suicide in sewers (carrying deadly gases) rather than accept daily humiliation at the hand of upper-caste rulers, actually drove a sewage worker to suicide. In truth, the poor man inhaled poisonous fumes at work. He, like his fellow workers, was not provided with the barest safety equipment to protect himself against noxious gases and other forms of pollution.
His wife, of haunting visage and quiet, dignified voice, says in court that her husband used to wait for a cockroach or a dangerous insect to come out of the sewer before entering it.
Maybe he got in before seeing that safety sign. When Kamble’s lawyer offers financial help, she asks for work instead, not letting poverty come in the way of her dignity.