"Court": A Resoundingly Positive Verdict for Indian Legal Drama

in 52nd Vienna International Film Festival

by Demetrios Matheou

We’re so accustomed to courtroom dramas that one wonders what any new film on the subject has to offer; the recent Hollywood film The Judge, a star vehicle for Robert Downey Jr. , suggested nothing at all.

So when a film has the temerity to actually call itself Court, you assume it’s setting itself up for a fall. But in fact, Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut feature is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking films about the legal system I’ve seen, one that breathes with veracity, understated indignation and, despite its very particular milieu, a certain universality. The winner of the Fipresci Prize at this year’s Viennale is a superbly crafted and very special film.

It opens with a splash of exotic local colour, as an ageing folk singer leaves a working class Mumbai community, travelling through the city to a crowded square and a stage, where he performs a beautiful but politically pungent folk song.

On one level the sequence is a tease, leading us to imagine that we’re about to embark on a colourful story set on the streets of India’s biggest city. This doesn’t materialise. Instead the singer, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), is arrested and the action shifts into the courtroom.

The charge is gratuitous, to put it mildly. A sewerage worker is found dead in a manhole; Kamble is accused with inciting the man to suicide, through the lyrics of one of his songs.

Defence attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) determines that there is no evidence that the death was a suicide (rather than an accident), or that the dead man even heard a song that would have put suicide in his mind. The police and prosecution are working on a knee-jerk prejudice against Kamble’s politics and his radical past; the charge is as much political as it is legally incompetent.

However, none of this matters in the courtroom, where the judge is locked into the same institutional prejudice as the prosecution.

One of the skills of Tamhane’s script is that it doesn’t labour this injustice with melodramatic or high-minded speeches. His courtroom scenes have the realism of procedural, and therefore a certain matter-of-factness. When Vora’s frequent pleas for bail for his client are turned down, he merely closes his file with a shrug and the action moves on; we see in his speech to a civil rights group that he handles many cases like Kamble’s, but this information is imparted succinctly, with little fuss. As the case drags on and on, and Kamble’s health begins to be affected by his long incarceration, the temperature of the film never rises.

Meanwhile, the narrative is fleshed out behind the scenes, as we’re given glimpses of the personal lives of the defence lawyer, the state prosecutor and the judge. The results are paradoxical.

The defence attorney is committed, passionate and competent in his work, but outside the court we see him intolerant of his well-meaning parents, humourless and pampered; he lives alone, frequenting the westernised bars of the affluent Indian.  He may be just, but it’s difficult to warm to him. Amongst her colleagues, the prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) declares that if she were a judge she’d waste no time in throwing the singer in jail for 20 years; she’s a monstrous state animal. But outside, she softens; of a lower class than Vora, she is stuck in the role of domestic servant to her oblivious husband and children (despite her profession and heavy workload), yet she performs these tasks with grace and affection.

Such contradictory messages, along with an extraordinary glimpse of the judge at the end of the film, are consistent with the complicated realism of the piece; indeed when we see more of the singer himself, we find that though innocent he is hardly blameless in his fate.

Tamhane shoots in long, sometimes deliberately boring takes, relaying the tedium and occasional absurdity of the court. In a great, early sequence the director makes us sit for some time through an unrelated case, waiting for Kamble’s to come before the judge; when it does, it’s dealt with in a flash, leaving us scratching our heads – and beautifully reflecting the passage and waste of time in a real court. Other moments are simply hilarious, as when the judge deals with a group of people jointly accused of sitting in reserved seats on a bus.

The film’s lighter moments illustrate the confidence of its director, and do not detract from his serious intent. Tamhane’s restraint in revealing the way that politics, incompetence and corruption impede justice in his country makes his film all the more powerful.

Demetrious Matheou