Just when all hope seemed to be lost about serious Indian cinema, along comes Court , directed by the 28-year-old Chaitanya Tamhane and produced by Vivek Gomber, all of 36 and an expressive actor to boot. It is a film in four languages—Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and English—harmoniously blended to catch the attention of the viewer. To facilitate the audiovisual experience, subtitles have been incorporated where necessary. The film is about one Narayan Kamble, a 65-year-old Dalit folk singer accused of abetting the suicide of Vasudev Pawar, a municipal sewage worker in Mumbai. The young man, the police assert, took his life after hearing one of Kamble’s songs at an open-air performance in a slum. The charge, of course, is a complete fabrication. Kamble is a popular artiste who constantly educates his fellow Dalits about their rights and how they must fight to get them and be treated as equals by upper-caste Hindus. He is a thorn in the side of the establishment and therefore must be put out of action, by legal means of course!
This is the kind of story that can get out of hand if not handled properly, but the script by Tamhane is subtle, ironic, witty, perceptive and full of feeling. There is no place in it for over-the-top theatrics or copious tears. The film moves at an unhurried pace while retaining the attention of the viewer and arousing his/her curiosity. How the young scriptwriter-director came up with such a mature, nuanced script and a detached yet receptive technique of narrating it is a mystery. He did do a fair amount of research, reading up on court procedures, various aspects of the law, those pertaining to cases like Narayan Kamble’s in particular, and judgments by eminent jurists. Systematic research may result in a good thesis but not always in a good script. Tamhane manages to convert his research into an eloquent script and a deeply felt film.
The film is about Kamble and a young, inexperienced, idealist lawyer, Vinay Vora, who is from the Gujarati upper class, and their touching, often-heroic and sometimes-comic struggle against a legal system completely dominated by the Hindu upper castes that is going to trip them up at every step while pretending to be completely fair. The Kamble-Vora duo can never hope to match the representatives of the law, that is, the sessions court judge and the public prosecutor, in mendacious behaviour. They stonewall every effort of Vora’s to get his client Kamble out of police detention in ways that are bland yet clever, bizarre yet inadvertently funny. As the film unfolds, the politics of both the judge and the public prosecutor is revealed to be of the most dangerous right-wing variety. Vora is further hampered by his client’s tendency to take on the state at every opportunity and get arrested as a consequence.
The environment in the sessions court is enervating. People hang around forever, waiting to be heard. Most of the people summoned in the film are, going by their names, Dalits. The one person who is quietly reprimanded by the judge is a woman with a Goan-sounding name, in a sleeveless dress. She is told that her case will not be heard because she is not properly dressed to appear in court and is advised to come appropriately attired for the next hearing. The morality of the current regime is thus established.
The larger picture Tamhane treats the representatives of the law as ordinary people with their own share of prejudices. But, to his eternal credit, he never loses sight of the larger picture, that of the legal, political and economic systems being the exclusive preserve of the privileged minority from the upper castes. Although it is not spelt out, Court seems to suggest that the 2 per cent who control 98 per cent of India’s natural resources dictate the agenda for the poor to follow. The director has said in TV interviews that he is no political ideologue. He is certainly a highly civilised person and a deeply concerned citizen if the film is anything to go by.
Court is put together with a detachment that, in the current context of Indian film-making and film-watching, seems to be other-worldly. Most Indian films, not just those in Hindi, aspire to frenetic movement, possibly due to lack of worthwhile content. Filmgoers too have adjusted themselves to become appreciative recipients of mindless violence, verbal garrulousness and a striving for speedy on-screen action. There are no “real” people in Indian commercial cinema, only glamorously got-up types who are passed off as flesh-and-blood creatures. Court is the diametric opposite of the so-called popular film. Every person in it is real, not just the main characters. The film lives and breathes in a real world and not just because of its story. Tamhane, Gomber and the entire team have strived very hard to create a believable world throughout its 116-minute run. In this endeavour they succeed most admirably.
Slow and rhythmic pace The pacing of the film is so unhurried that it may scare off fans of hard-boiled action dramas. Editor Rikhav Desai and director Tamhane’s decision to maintain a slow yet rhythmic pace in telling the story is a master stroke. It draws the viewer into the heart of the film quietly. Court manages the unlikely feat of combining with aplomb feelings like ennui, sadness and a boiling anger that seethes just below the surface of the narrative. This editing technique managed to hold the attention of a pretty large audience in a Delhi theatre where this writer saw the film. Not a single person left the hall before the end. It was an audience with no preconceived notions about the film.
The art direction by Nilesh Wagh is exceptional. It is understated and helps to capture the worlds of the different characters in the film with a degree of fidelity not seen in Indian cinema since Satyajit Ray’s time. The choice of locations is flawless. The public prosecutor’s small boxed-in home in an old quarter of Mumbai; Vinay Vora’s parental home, exuding restraint, comfort and well-being; Kamble’s improvised classroom for small children in one of the poorer sections of the city; the doleful environment in which the deceased sewage worker lived with his wife; and last but not least, the accurate, atmospheric reconstruction of the courtroom where Kamble is tried give the film its ring of truth. Sachin Lovalekar’s costumes too enhance the storytelling, helping the director to articulate his thoughts and feelings.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Only two of them are professionals, Vivek Gomber (Vinay Vora) and Geetanjali Kulkarni (public prosecutor). The rest of the cast are amateurs. Workshops were conducted to select the actors and train them. Tamhane showed rare patience to get his cast to perform as an ensemble, often going to 40 takes to get a shot right. The end result is indeed exceptional.
Vivek Gomber, transformed on-screen with a beard and glasses into an idealist young lawyer unrecognisable from his glamorous real-life personality, brings both humour and a touch of pathos to his difficult role. Vira Sathidar (Narayan Kamble) effortlessly brings out the strength, humour, stubbornness and the unshakable dignity of his character. His singing on stage with his group has an authenticity that needs more than talent. In a promo of the film, he said that the story was very much a part of his lived experience. Pradip Joshi as the prejudiced, foolish, vulnerable and seemingly fair judge gives a fine performance. Geetanjali Kulkarni as the public prosecutor who follows the law in letter but not in spirit seamlessly brings together elements from her character’s personal and professional lives to make the viewer understand why she is the obdurate creature she is. Usha Bane as Sharmila Pawar, the wife of the deceased sewage worker, makes a terrific impact in a cameo role with her haunting face and measured, dignified response in court, and in her response to Vinay Vora as he drives her home after the hearing.
The production, so courageously undertaken by Vivek Gomber who pumped in Rs.3.5 crore, must stand as a landmark in independent cinema in India. His logic is that he believed in the project. His faith in director Chaitanya Tamhane has paid off handsomely. Court is one of the most accomplished and significant films produced in a very long time. One must not forget to mention the executive producer B.S. Narayanaswamy, veteran of small-budget independent cinema, who would have brought his vast experience to run the production on an everyday basis and iron out the glitches that must have inevitably happened.
Team effort Tamhane’s maturity and skill as a director lies in the choices he made; first, in the people he chose to work with behind the camera, and then, in front of it. In cinematographer Mrinal Desai, he found the ideal collaborator who realised that the best way to film the script would be to keep close-ups to a minimum and, cannily, through visual suggestion, make the viewer feel that he/she was a participant in the unfolding narrative. Desai’s camera movements and lighting evoke the atmosphere of the places and the mood of the people unobtrusively. In this aspect, equal credit should also go to art director Nilesh Wagh. The sound design by Anita Kushawa, aided by Debajit Changmai, Boloy Kumar Doloi, Pritam Dutta and Rahul Karpe, adds to the films dynamics, as does the music of Sambhaji Bhagat, particularly the militant songs sung by Kamble.
There is a lot of talk of overtly political films being made in India, particularly in Hindi. Prakash Jha is one director who is cited often as an example, with films like Mrityudand (1997), Gangaajal (2003), Apaharan (2004), Rajneeti (2010), Chakravyuh (2012) and Satyagraha (2013). His films are about thugs, rogue politicians, crooked, unfeeling landlords, etc. However, they are just stories, often well told, but without genuine sociological insights or political far-sightedness. Chaitanya Tamhane, despite being so young, has a maturity and understanding of contemporary Indian society that has eluded much older directors, including ones who claim to be politically committed.
It is clear from the way Court has been put together that Tamhane has not only seen the classics of world cinema but also learnt vital lessons from them. It appears that the films of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu have taught him a great deal; for instance, that one can make an impact on the audience by telling the film’s story in a serene manner without resorting to cinematic flourishes. Clarity of thought, genuineness of feeling, and a balance struck between the two can bring a real aesthetic to a film and, indeed, add to its impact.
Court has a lasting impact because the story of the Dalit Narayan Kamble’s rebellion against the Indian state is narrated in such a witty and detached manner. Kamble’s folk songs of searing intensity are juxtaposed against a calm yet moving narration of his travails and that of his lawyer. The state may prove more cunning than the innocent idealists who stand up to its tyranny, and deny them justice, but the worth of their struggle for dignity and equity is immeasurable.