Direction (and writing): Chaitanya Tamhane
Cast: Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vira Sathidar, Pradeep Joshi
A day before Chaitanya Tamhane’s award-winning multilingual film (Marathi, primarily, with Hindi, English and Gujarati), Court, is to release in theatres, there’s news that the censor board asked for two lines to be deleted. One of them concerns a propaganda Marathi play, dealing with the anti-north Indian sentiment; the CBFC has an issue with the term ‘aai-mai’ (mother-sister). Then, on the day of release, a former sheriff of Mumbai has his office vandalised, for putting up a banner criticising the diktat of compulsory regional film screening in the state.
The two disconnected incidents could well be scenes from Court, which deals with intolerance, censorship and freedom of expression. We live in strange times, where expressing dissent has consequences, and where everyone is quick to take umbrage. It makes Tamhane’s film that much more relevant.
It’s a courtroom drama, if you must label it. It even largely follows the genre’s storytelling structure, with court scenes interspersed with the goings-on in between. And yet, Court is so much more.
A sewage cleaner, Vasudev Pawar, has died, ironically, by falling into a sewer. A rebel poet, Narayan Kamble (Vira Satidhar), has been arrested on grounds of abetment of suicide because, allegedly, he stood nearby, Pied Piper-esquely singing about suicide.
It is an absurdist premise. Evidently, Pawar is arrested frequently, on little pretext, because his anti-establishment songs are seen as dangerous. In the way his case drags, unendingly, illogically, it reminds you of absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Even more acutely, though, in its sharp satire aimed at a dystopian system, it shares sentiments with Tagore’s Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards).
In Tagore’s play, a rigid, unquestioning regime is governed by redundant laws. In Court, the prosecutor (Geentanjali Kulkarni) is the agent of such a system. She reads out long legal notes impassively; says “I strongly object” with no emotion, because that’s what lawyers say; refers to redundant Victorian laws; and when faced with logic, can only argue, “but the law is there”. Tamhane manages to keep the procedural scenes interesting, funny even, with a dry humour. At one point, the judge rejects the case of a certain Mercy Fernandes because she’s wearing a sleeveless top, considered “indecent”, and therefore not allowed in court.
Yet, it’d be myopic to say that the critique is of the judiciary alone. It is symbolic of a systemic rot – in governance, and in education. So, sewer cleaners continue to work in inhuman conditions, even as products of rote learning debate in court why the so-called victim chose not to wear protective gear.
There are no villains, since we’re all products of our milieu. The film attempts to establish that by following the central characters out of court, one at a time. Yet, herein also is the film’s weakness. The glimpses into the lives of the judge, the prosecutor and the defender Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, also the producer) – each representing different social strata – encourages the audience to judge them on the basis of a few clichés.
The prosecutor leads a mundane life comprising household chores, a diabetic husband, and propaganda plays by means of entertainment. Vora is the polar opposite – the urban elite who shops for wine and cheese, and hangs out at pubs where songs from Brazil spark conversations about foreign holidays. The weakest portrayal, and perhaps a tad misplaced sequentially, is that of the judge, who advocates numerology and astrological gemstones, and slaps a kid who plays a prank. A statement about rash justice meted out and power structure, perhaps, but a rather simplistic one.
Yet, National Award-winner Court does a lot of things right. The understated performances, not just from the principal cast (the support cast has a lot of non-professional actors), is a departure from the histrionics usually seen in courtroom dramas – in Bollywood and elsewhere. The cinematography is exemplary. Mrinal Desai
(who also shot the powerful 2012 documentary, The World Before Her) deals largely in fixed, wide-angle shots, that provide the perspective of an observer at the back of the room.)
Above all, Court does very well something that cinema, besides other forms of art, often attempt. It holds up a mirror to society; and it makes you worry about what you see.