Chaitanya Tamhane’s first feature-length film ‘Court’ is not just an indictment of the functionings of the Indian judiciary. It opens a two-hour window of unadulterated realism into the multilayered and complex Indian reality that embeds the judiciary within it. ‘Court’ sees with a dispassionate yet keenly observant eye, uses the language of the absurd and examines every cog in the wheel of the machine it damns. It creates a powerful cinematic language where lines between fiction and non-fiction often get blurred. Tamhane’s ‘Court’ is sharply political yet not propagandist in its form. Like an artist with sensitivity and empathy, Tamhane dissects law and society with the calm deftness of an expert surgeon, and shows us entrails of our own oppressive order.
A young sewage worker, Vasudev Pawar, on contractual service with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, goes down a manhole and suffocates to death. Days later, the police investigation makes it out as a ‘clear case of suicide’. They go on to arrest well-known lokshahir (people’s balladeer), the aged and fiery Narayan Kamble, from a cultural protest meeting in quite a dramatic fashion. He is charged with abetment of Pawar’s suicide. The medium of abetment, the police claim, is one of Kamble’s songs. A protest song that Kamble is said to have composed and sung near the dingy workers’ quarters where Pawar lived with his wife, child and brother. The song is alleged to have called upon all manhole workers to die by going down the gutters! The sessions court judge admits the case as ‘fit for hearing’. In one masterful stroke, the State absolves itself of all responsibility for the contract worker’s death at his workplace and simultaneously trains guns at the lokshahir and his ballad – a twin indictment. And so begins the Kafkaesque trial of State vs. Narayan Kamble in the court of law.
If the charges against Narayan Kamble sound fabricated, farcical yet all-too-familiar, that’s precisely the intention of writer-filmmaker Tamhane. He keeps giving little clues all along the way on real-life cases to which the audience can immediately relate. On screen, Kamble’s troupe, consisting of young men and women blending radical Ambedkarite and Left cultural traditions with folk music, brings back memories of the Kabir Kala Manch performances. Sambhaji Bhagat – revered Left and Dalit lokshahir – lends his deeply impassioned, rousing and electrifying voice to Narayan Kamble on screen. In one scene of a human rights seminar we notice a poster demanding justice for Soni Sori and another one depicting the State’s projection of Dr. Binayak Sen as an ‘enemy of the people’. Chaitanya himself has spoken of the fabricated case of activist-balladeer Jiten Marandi having also inspired his scripting of ‘Court’. Joining the many dots, one can immediately ground the film on the soil of present-day reality.
But Tamhane’s film is not a satirical courtroom drama on one particular case of Narayan Kamble. In fact the case-in-point could have been about many other things. It could have been, for instance, about the young Muslim man Parvez Ahmed whose all-too-familiar story we hear from Kamble’s defense lawyer during the above-mentioned seminar. Parvez is being repeatedly arrested over several years by the State in one planted case after another, though the tedious legal battle proves him innocent of all charges over and over again. (Remember Abdul Nasser Maudany? Or thousands of Muslim youth exactly like Parvez?). The case could as well have been a fictionalised version of the supposedly deadly ‘smugglers’ of red Sanders - twenty poor adivasi woodcutters - who were shot dead in cold blood, unarmed, by the Police in the forests of Chittoor very recently. Or it could have been Asiya and Nilofar’s case where the two Kashmiri women were raped and killed by armed forces and a case made out suggesting they drowned themselves in ankle-deep water. It could have been any such fabricated case involving witch-hunt of a dissenting voice or community. And ‘Court’ makes good use of not just Tamhane’s script but Mrinal Desai’s camera to thickly underline this generality.
The film doesn’t get entangled in over-dramatized arguments and counter-arguments like the ordinary courtroom drama. It sticks faithfully to what happens in real-life courts instead. The camera hardly ever uses a close-up shot. It mostly looks at proceedings from a vague distance - as if a view from one of the back benches in the room. It uses mid-shots on the main characters when more clarity is needed for the film to proceed. The story-centric narrative is broken down and a documentary-style sense of perpetuity infused in it. The wide-angled and steady camera outside the court observes not just the focal characters, but life and happenings all around it. Without a set-narrative, the eye for details (without fetishization of ‘arty details’), brilliant use of humour lifted from everyday mundane life, the use of small-talk and gossip, and the tight script keeps the audience glued to their seats and enriches the observational treatment. Rarely does one get to see such a good match between form and content in cinema.
Apart from Narayan Kamble, his younger troupe-colleague Subodh Kishte, and the deceased contract worker’s wife Sharmila Pawar - all of whom hail from the working class; there are three middle-class/upper-caste characters in ‘Court’. The prosecution lawyer Nutan, the defense lawyer Vinay Vora, and the sessions judge Sadavarte. The film visits their lived lives in the evenings, weekends and holidays while the court is adjourned. Nutan (played to precision with Geetanjali Kulkarni) becomes the State’s voice in court, reading out long passages from the Indian Penal Code on the UAPA or the ‘Dramatic Performances Act’ and cross-examining the accused and the defense witness without a shred of empathy for their conditions and with the sole objective of securing a harsh sentence. She is also the face in court of the prejudiced ‘majoritarian’ common-sense that suspects and fears every dissenting voice: one that never doubts the ethics of draconian or outdated laws. Off-court, Nutan is a wife and a mother-of-two from a middle-class household, where she obligingly shares the giant load of housework. On weekends, her family joins laughing and cheering crowds at the theatre where a chauvinistic play on the quintessential ‘Marathi manoos’ demonises the ‘outsider’ immigrants who are seen as a threat to ownership of Marathi jobs, Marathi land and Marathi women.
Vinay Vora (played by Vivek Gomber), the defense lawyer, comes from a prosperous Gujarati background. In court he speaks from a human rights and civil liberties perspective. Off-court, he is portrayed as sensitive and respectful of the working class. But his lived reality - lifestyle, privilege, social security and even the English tongue - are worlds apart from theirs. So in a way, he tries to connect across class, caste, and privilege but never really can transcend the insurmountable barriers.
In a brilliant postscript sequence, Tamhane takes off the judge’s solemn black robe and looks naked at sessions judge Sadavarte. Stripped of the aura of the judge’s high seat, he is no different from the typical neo-middle-class family patriarch: conservative, superstitious, religious, aspirational and a beneficiary of liberalized India. By dissecting the lives of the lawyers and the judge, ‘Court’ avoids making ‘villains’ of individual people and attempts to look at society as a whole - replete with its class hatreds, caste biases, prejudices and social approvals - which legitimises what happens eventually in the courtroom.
Through its working class protagonists, ‘Court’ paints a picture of Mumbai from the working (wo)man’s point of view. Its choice of locations and camera angles works well towards this goal. Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar) strikes with his two songs. The first song talks of doom and revolt. Of the scam and sham of a city of casteist, racist, religious, nationalistic jungles, of malady and gluttony, and fancy shopping malls. ‘Dushmanaala jaan re’ (know your enemy), it cries, and ‘rise in revolt’! The banner on the stage reads ‘we are not here to create a ruckus but to change the whole system’. It fits perfectly into what is readily considered seditious by the State.
Sharmila Pawar (played by Usha Bane), the dead worker’s wife, gives testimony in court, in what was for me one of the most powerful and moving sequences of the film. She recounts how her husband used to go into the shitholes - sans any kind of protective gear and at great life risk; how he used to drink himself senseless in order to be able to bear the stench; how he had no reliable way of even knowing if there was enough oxygen for him to breathe down there; and how he had earlier lost an eye from the poisonous gases and dirt. Juxtaposed with the State’s version of Pawar’s death, Sharmila’s calm and dignified testimony cuts and rips into the viewer’s conscience and is a sure indictment of the State’s culpability in the worker’s death.
‘Court’ is a fictional film, but it draws influences and inspirations from documentary films. Anand Patwardhan’s epic documentary ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ comes foremost to the mind. I also remembered K P Sasi’s ‘Fabricated’ insofar as the contents go, and Deepa Dhanraj’s ‘Invoking Justice’ as I kept thinking of the justice system that was meant to work for wronged and oppressed people in a humane manner, but turned out quite the opposite. Finally, in the brief interlude between his bail and re-arrest on non-bailable charges, Narayan Kamble singes and stings with a song mockingly addressed to ‘baap sarkar’ (our all-powerful lords and masters) where he raises a fundamental question on the role and purpose of art. Art as it exists, versus art as it should be. What better words to end my review?
Screams from the funeral pyre-
cannot be called ‘art’.
We will genuinely be obliged-
If you do not label us as ‘artists’!
‘Court’ is a must-watch and a rare cinematic masterpiece in recent times. Tamhane reaffirms our belief that cinema can be an unsettling experience, that it can wake us from our stupor and liberalization-induced siesta.