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This debut film of Chaitanya Tamhane is a scathing comment on the Indian judicial system and the sufferings of the poor

By Somi Das

 ourt scenes have always been an important motif in our films. For many of us who have never been entangled in a legal case, films have served as our only window to visualize court settings. Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film, Court, however, will shatter your perceptions about court proceedings. It deals with daily hearings in a sessions court in Mumbai. And Tamhane has got it right, as Court has already bagged the Best Debut Film award at the 71st Venice International Film Festival and Best Film Award at the Mumbai Film Festival. But when watching the film, you might well ask why the film won so many awards. The camera work is ordinary and the narrative, linear. There aren’t any complexities or scenes that leave you devastated the way Shahid, a 2013 courtroom drama based on the life of lawyer-activist Shahid Azmi, did.



 Court strikes you with its brutally real depiction of a sessions court




However, it’s only after the watching the film that you realize it is brutally real. This is evident in the grim settings of a lower court, the “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude of the judge and the deliberate attempt of every party involved to delay the case.
To back this, the 27-year-old director has a brilliant story too. A 65-year-old social activist and folk singer, Narayan Kamble, is arrested on charges of abetting the suicide of a sewage worker. The police claims that Kamble, during a performance in a Dalit locality, sang a song asking all sanitary workers to commit suicide in sewer tanks by inhaling the poisonous gases. Kamble is being defended by a young, motivated lawyer, Vinay Vora, who belongs to a rich Gujarati family. Vora is being opposed by fiery public prosecutor Nutan, who comfortably slips out of her black lawyer’s robe to done an apron while happily cooking for her family.
Tamhane smartly intercuts court scenes with the lives of his characters outside the court. While Nutan’s idea of a perfect holiday is a family outing and watching anti-North Indian Marathi plays, her rival Vora spends his leisure time in the company of female friends in a bar. As for the judge, breaking for summer vacations and going on a trip is far more important than the fate of the accused. On days when he is too tired to hear a case, he simply cites ridiculous laws to postpone the hearing. In one instance, he refuses to hear a case because the respondent in the case is clad in a sleeveless dress, which he deems as “inappropriate”—a valid reason for a judge not to hear a case, according to statute books.


The prime accused in the case, Kamble, seems to be the only one who has a purpose in his life and is ready to suffer for it. Even after Vora painstakingly secures bail for him, he goes back to Dalit bastis to sing rebel songs and produce literature that is considered “anti-national”. Within days, he is back in jail with a new case against him. Tamhane says in an interview: “The judiciary is an authorized, but violent institution that metes out life and death judgments. It’s one of those platforms where otherwise bracketed people from across class and cultures interact and entwine.”

Daily court proceedings not only reveal cracks in our archaic judicial system but also expose how insensitive it is towards the poor. One moving scene is when the wife of the sewage worker, called as witness, tells the court that her husband was never given any safety gear to enter the sewer tanks. He would drink alcohol to keep off the foul smell and enter only if he spotted a living cockroach in the tank —a sign of life inside tons of human waste. The sheer apathy of society hits you. But Tamhane creates no fuss about it. No music. No tears. He makes his character say all this in a matter-of-fact way. All that the wife wants is for the case to end and a job to support the family.


(Above) Debutante director Chaitanya Tamhane


Tamhane’s Court is a melting pot of people from different castes, classes and sensibilities. Thus, the lack of sympathy of one party to-wards another. Thus, Nutan is frustrated that she has to see the same faces in court everyday and so wants harsh punishment for Kamble, little realizing the ramifications of such a verdict on his family. In one stroke, the film touches a range of issues—Dalits, class differences and an apathetic judiciary.


The film has some brilliant performances by the lead actors. Vira Sathidar as Narayan Kamble looks straight out of a Kabir Kala Manch performance—energetic, witty and rebellious. Geetanjali Kulkarni as the no-nonsense, emotionless public prosecutor is a delight to watch. So is Vivek Gomber as Vora.

The camera is neat and slow. Tamhane seems to dislike cuts. Towards the end of the film, there is a symbolic scene where the court caretaker switches off all the lights and fans in the room. Then, the frame stays still for half-a-minute, giving one a sense of Kamble’s agony —how long and listlessly he will have to wait before he gets a chance to be heard again.

This poignant scene could have served as the perfect ending for the film. Instead, Tam-hane chooses to come back to the mundane and mediocre lives of the characters—a bit stretched. Otherwise, the film is an impressive debut. Tamhane is a talent to watch out for.

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