Cinema: Taking our times to court

Published: June 3, 2015 - 13:21 Updated: June 16, 2015 - 14:55

This film is about the seamier side of our courts where fake witnesses, influence, and cultural affinities are used to deny justice to the marginalised

Shilpi Gulati Delhi

Chaitanya Tamhane’s film, Court, is about caste—an issue no mainstream director nowadays cares or dares to touch. At the centre of the film’s narrative is the death of a Dalit sewage cleaner, Vasudev Pawar, whose body is found in a manhole in Maharashtra. Using fake witnesses, the police crafts a case of suicide to shield the municipal corporation from charges of negligence in giving safety gear to its workers. As a result, a folk singer and activist, Narayan Kamble (Veera Sathidar), is absurdly dragged into the case for singing a provocative song that allegedly led to Pawar’s suicide.

Tamhane’s carefully crafted narrative operates at two levels. At one, it quite simply follows the proceedings of Kamble’s case in the sessions court, where his upper-class defence lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), argues against Sharmila Pawar (Geetanjali Kulkarni), a middle-class Marathi public prosecutor. With the aid of powerful performances by the two and a pinch of dry humour, the script effortlessly exposes the flaws in our judicial system.

The most poignant scene in the film portrays the testimony in court of the widow of the Dalit worker. Completely matter-of-fact, she describes how her husband first lost an eye and then his life in the sewers—which he would enter only after drinking himself into a stupor to overcome his disgust. At this level, the biggest strength of Tamhane’s film is its ability to juxtapose baldly such caste atrocities with the failure of the
legal system.

Here is the Indian court, where archaic laws, fake witnesses, cultural affinities and personal biases all play a crucial role in depriving the most marginalised sections of our society of justice.

At a second layer of the narrative strategy, the film delves into the personal lives of the two lawyers. On the one hand, we see the privileges enjoyed by the upper-caste Gujarati lawyer who fights for human rights. In the courts, he defends the poorest of the poor. But outside he shops in upmarket stores, drinks expensive alcohol and listens to jazz. In contrast, the married middle-class woman prosecutor argues her case against the wrongfully accused folk singer without the slightest sign of sympathy, yet at home works dutifully at taking care of her family and the household.

The most striking thing about Tamhane’s film, though, is its realistic style. In less deft hands, this material might have descended into the usual Bollywood melodrama. But Tamhane brings out the complex network of class politics and effortlessly resists all things loud, glamorous and larger-than-life usually seen in mainstream cinema. The Mumbai it constructs for the audience is refreshingly different from the romanticised sea or the overdone world of the rich and famous in their highrises, or the glamorous chaos of gangsters’ chawls. Quite humbly, it reveals everyday life in the slums of the city where cultures of resistance find a voice and at the same time takes us to the sites of propagandist public performances consumed by the middle-class Marathi audience.

At a technical level, apart from brilliant casting and production design, the most striking thing about Court is the pace of the static frames that allow the world of the everyday to reveal itself. By holding shots for a tad after the protagonists have exited the frame, Tamhane mysteriously reveals a reality that conveys more about the world than most films capture. And this mature understanding of cinema is what makes a viewing of Court an exceptional experience.

The verdict is that Court is brilliant in its sensitive, humane and extremely political engagement with caste and class in our society. It has to be applauded for its multi-layered treatment of issues of cultural exclusion, censorship and free speech, and for its expression of solidarity with the struggles of activists like Arun Fereira, Binayak Sen and Kabir Kala Manch. And, most important, Court restores faith that cinema can be rooted and grounded in the political realities of our time. It throws a challenge to upcoming filmmakers by setting a radical benchmark in the name of independent filmmaking in India.

This story is from print issue of HardNews