All Hail Chaitanya Tamhane

in 17th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Gerald Peary

All hail Chaitanya Tamhane, 27, a self-taught film director whose Court – winner of the FIPRESCI prize twice, at Venice and now in Buenos Aires at BAFICI – is an astonishing film debut. A major director from India has arrived! Tamhane studied literature at the university in Mumbai, and he has worked as a soap opera writer and a theater director. But it was discovering foreign movies at the cinema which inspired him to filmmaking of a different kind from the generic, imitative Indian films he was used to. Thus Court, also written by Tamhane, and featuring a cast mixing in several professional actors with a large ensemble of non-thespian amateurs. I defy anyone to tell which are which, everyone seems so “real”.

I must admit that I was faked out. I hadn’t read about Court before seeing it in Buenos Aires, and I believed I was watching an extraordinary documentary, though with several staged sequences. Instead, Court is an extraordinary fiction film posing as non-fiction. I don’t know if Tamhane has watched the films of Frederick Wiseman, but Court seems a simulation of the way Wiseman conceives his documentaries.  A dispassionate camera observes an institution at work, and through the work day, seeing how people go about their jobs, how the employed interact with the public, how higher-ups interact with those lower with less power, etc., but without taking sides in an obvious way. Everything is straight-faced, yet there is, from the sly filmmaker, wit and irony and a subversive point of view for those who really pay attention.

Here, the institution is a low court in Mumbai, which handles many cases every day, mostly the kind that don’t make the newspapers, involving the poor and disenfranchised. But what happens here can be read as a mirror of Indian society. Tamhane is never didactic, yet it’s not a pretty picture. Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), with whom we spent a lot of time, is paternal and condescending to those unfortunates who appear before him, and also a prude, making a woman come back for another court date because her bare arms are showing. But he’s especially hostile and dismissive if the defendant takes anti-government political stances.

Sadavarte is the wrong justice for Court’s kind-of-hero, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathider), a passive man with glasses and a beard who, when he climbs onto a stage, transforms into an impassioned political balladeer. He’s a Dalit, an “untouchable”, and his ferocious songs attacking the establishment are aimed at stirring India’s forgotten masses. It’s no surprise that Kamble’s concert is stopped by the police and he is arrested. When he stands before Sadavarte, it’s for the most patently absurd and trumped-up charges. He’s accused of having sung a song which inspired a worker to commit suicide. He’s a de facto murderer!

The scenes in Sadavarte’s courtroom are based on the director’s actual research of the Mumbai judicial  system. They are a clear indictment of “justice”, Indian style. Kamble doesn’t have a chance. The court scenes are filmed mostly in long shots and long takes from a camera on a tripod. Suddenly, Court gets intimate and the camera comes up close, and the film gets even more interesting. We follow home, one after another, both Kamble’s appointed court attorney and Kamble’s prosecutor. The former is a westernized man whose parents nag him to marry. The latter is a traditional woman who cooks for her children and takes them in the evening to a play. Cut to the stage for a sitcom-style comedy which ends with a right-wing, patriotic speech applauded by the audience, including the lady prosecutor.

And finally, and funniest, Court joins the smug Judge Sadavarte on a weekend holiday, where, even off the bench, he retains his power. He pompously lectures the other men on the retreat; and even wearing short pants, he acts like a little emperor. Court ends not in court, or in jail, but at a park bench, where the mighty Sadavarte snoozes. Some little children come along and scare him awake. Sadavarte, symbol of Indian justice, loses his composure completely and slaps a child. That’s it: the poor boy bawls, and here is a comic ending which Luis Buñuel would have adored.

Gerald Peary