Wednesday, July 15th 2015 an independent film by Chaitanya Tamhane entitled Court opened up in select theaters around the world. After making the film festival circuit and premiers in several countries around the globe, the film earned more than its share of awards and acclaim. It may not grab the attention of most people in the places it is releasing, but it is being hailed as both one of the finest expressions of Indian cinema and an act of artistic sedition. Although, Tamhane will probably not come under any sedition charges especially since the film underwent two cuts before it could get passed by censors in India. These cuts were quite ironical for a film that is about freedom of expression and censorship. After getting the old snip-snip, the film still carries a lot of weight.
At only 28 years old, Tamahne has no formal training in filmmaking yet has written and directed a play, a documentary and a short film entitled Six Strands. Despite his young age, lack of training and limited experience creating films, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court knocks the ball out of the park (or I guess to be more culturally accurate: drives the cherry past the boundary for a sixer). As with any indie film (or any art piece in general) success and quality can be quite subjective. However, assessing whether a film was successful and accurate in the portrayal of the message/theme is a bit more tangible, and in Court we see a great balance of artistic imagery and a clear message.
The film is a courtroom drama, more accurately though, it is a subversion of the typical courtroom drama genre. Firstly, there are no big-name actors/actresses, instead there is a cast full of seemingly “non-professional” actors and actresses delivering the message. Though such acting could turn people off, many would argue that this provides a more authentic experience to not see faces recognized from other roles. In a sense the people on the screen may as well be the characters they are portraying and in many respects it could very well be CSPAN India.
The second way this film departs from the typical courtroom drama is that the sense of immediacy and intimacy, often seen in the shots and mood of most films that fit in this genre (think A Few Good Men, A Time To Kill, and even the classic 12 Angry Men), is twisted and stretched in this film. There are a heavy peppering of wide shots, long takes and wordy sequences both inside and outside the courtroom that create a certain distance. These elements usually create a dilution of the impact the story and message have on people but in this film it seemed almost necessary. It provided context while delivering the meat. This distance also helped encompass the numerous spinning cogs in the Indian justice system all in one steady shot.
The main protagonist of the film is Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) has been many things but at the age of 65 is primarily a Marathi folk singer, an activist and the voice of the voiceless. His songs are controversial and downright obscene to traditionalists and invigorating to those who are tired of oppression, regression and aggression in India (primarily from the police and judicial system). The film opens with him reading poetry with children and quizzing them on facts about the country, then follows him as he leaves that context and walks through the streets of Mumbai, rides a bus and walks onto a stage at a protest rally and delivers a fierce performance encouraging the audience to “know your enemy”. The music in the film is sparse and that makes his performances all the more powerful and impactful. Near the end of the performance, police officers arrive and crash the stage surrounding Kamble. He is accused of inciting a manhole worker from the slums to commit suicide due to a song he supposedly sang in that slum days before the death which allegedly told manhole workers to lie down and die in the gutters. Because his charges are currently (and in the past) crimes against the state in the form of subversive and dangerous speech, he is denied bail and is held in jail until his trial months later.
At this point we are introduced to the other two points of interest in the film, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. This film did a beautiful job of contrasting the lives of a successful lawyer that can chose their cases and a public prosecuting attorney working hard to climb the ranks. Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) is Mr. Kamble’s defense lawyer and it is clear as camera follows him outside of the courtroom that he is from means and lives well. From shopping at a posh grocery where he buys imported goods, to driving a decent-looking car to having a relaxing and carefree night out with friends, he is clearly a privileged individual in the context of where he is living. His parents have a prominent name and are able to take he and his sister out to lavish restaurants. His lifestyle is starkly contrasted by the public prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) he is up against. She leaves her job and rides the bus where she discusses the impossible luxury of using olive oil with a fellow commuter, picks her son up at daycare, goes shopping for food and then comes home to cook everyone dinner while talking to friends on the phone. Her family has one outing where they go to a crowded restaurant and a very interesting play. Vora can afford to worry about social justice and fighting norms while she is grinding away and unconcerned with the people on trial as much the laws as they stand and holding those people to them.
There are strong undercurrents flowing throughout, it addresses the sexism, corruption, class separation and injustices in India. Even as a pretty decently educated westerner I admittedly am sadly ignorant when it comes to the history, demographics, languages and many other aspects of India. Having insight into the culture and heritage of Indian people would most definitely aid in giving a more accurate analysis of this film’s undercurrents in context. But even without an in depth understanding of the psyche and culture of people from India, the film lays out visual cues to address these issues in everyday life where they occur. These issues are portrayed both inside and outside the courtroom and sometimes have a humorous tint to them as they are presented. One example is of a woman who had been waiting for trial who appears before the judge and is told she will not be heard today because she is wearing a sleeveless garment and her arms are showing. Her lawyer tries to argue that the courtroom rules of modesty are ancient but the judge sticks to them and moves on to the next case. There are also many somewhat humorous cases of blatant lies and deceit by the police being called out when the facts contradict their “evidence”. One very powerful scene is when Kamble is called as a witness and the prosecutor asks if he sang a song about manhole workers killing themselves he replied “no” but when asked if he ever wrote a song like that he replied “not yet” which prompts her to ask if he would mind writing such a song, his response: “no”.
The court battle stretches on as each day a little more testimony is heard and discussed and then a new date is assigned to follow up. Meanwhile Kamble is living in prison and his health is deteriorating. After testimony from the dead man’s wife, it becomes more clear that it was not a suicide but an accident and the focus of the charges shifts from that incident to Kamble’s danger as an activist and prior arrests. His lawyer finally convinces the judge to let him out on bail and the social activist heads straight for a rally to perform and is later arrested at a print shop creating books that are considered seditious. Back in court there is still no verdict on the original arrest and the new arrest is lumped in. The judge opts to meet again and the next date the courts are in session in after a month-long holiday period. The judge doesn’t seem to care that this 85 year old man in poor health will be rotting in jail for a month before being seen again. In a start contrast from that scene, the film ends by following the judge during the holiday with his family at a nice resort. There we see his human and spiritual side just before the end credits roll.
Court has not only won awards like Best Film in many countries around the world, it also has had rave reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 100% with an audience score of 90%, and it earned 4 stars from RogerEbert.com. Most are in consensus that this film is not your typical courtroom drama but is indeed a brilliant view into the loopholes and failings of the judicial system in India. It elicits humor, sadness and frustration and whirls them around so you are crying so hard you laugh.
Court is currently playing at select theaters, click here and put in your zip code to see if it is in your area.