“Court”, the debut feature of Chaitanya Tamhane, is a poignant and bitter portrayal of institutional dysfunction. Made in a gritty, documentary-like style, the movie leaves a sense of helplessness and terror. The story unfolds unhurriedly, told with long, steady shots and wide angles, without a blink of an eye exposing the inanities of Indian judiciary to lay a charge against the system, though Tamhane defines „justice” as something much broader than only a set of codified rules, stretching its meaning to society’s welfare and stark inequalities. He uses a disguise of a court drama to narrate the tale that is nothing like a generic courtroom crowd pleaser, built of displays of lambent word-fencing and twist-and-turns of evidence jugglery.
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Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a humble-looking, white-haired and bearded, sixty-a few years old lok shahir, folk singer, or more accurately a people’s poet, is accused of abetting the alleged suicide of a manhole cleaner. The charge is absurd, and so is naming the obvious occupational incident as a suicide (as it is revealed later, the autopsy report proves victim’s death was a result of respiratory failure caused by hydrogen sulphide, moreover no self harm marks were found). Kamble’s “part” in the incident is that few days back he performed a song carrying a message that sanitation workers should self-immolate in a protest against the inhumane and humiliating conditions they work in. Kamble’s gigs always bear a stigma of civil disobedience as he is opposing corruption, caste and class divisions, coupled with different forms of oppression caused by the former, advocating for a change.
However, Tamhane’s movie is not a story of Kamble. Neither it is a story of the advocate Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), or the judge (Pradeep Joshi), or the public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni).
“Court” is a scrap of the tissue of the society put under the microscope, mercilessly bringing out communal tensions, hierarchy, accompanied by unbalance of forces; the bitter reality in which those privileged are exploiting the weak and silencing them if they try to oppose. The tale gives gruesome testimony of how difficult uprooting the “caste” from the society’s awareness is. It may be rubbed out by the law and paragraphs, though stands firm and resilient in common mindsets, shaped through the ages of a particular social order. Consequently, using four languages, Marathi, English, Gujarati and Hindi, the director additionally underlines society’s divisions and complexity.
He also invites us for a grotesque wander through a labyrinth of rigid procedures, fossilized codes, and paragraphs incongruent with postcolonial reality (for the record, a large number of laws in India dating back to the British Raj are still in use), while Mumbai Sessions Court, as depicted here, seems like a materialization of a kafqueske nightmare of Josef K.
Court sessions subjugated by processing routine: case after case, number after number, as in a factory. Hence delays seem to be the constitutional part of the defective system. Whereas Kamble’s case, concerning involvement in human life’s premature end, is accompanied by such trifles like unauthorized travelling in a disabled compartment or the theft of a watch. This is the reality of Indian courts, choked with the proceedings often lasting a lifetime.
The ongoing trials sometimes appear as a farce, when lawyers with a grave seriousness are invoking the XIX-century regulations, the witnesses are ignoring their summons, disappear for weeks, correspondingly their credibility is disputable, and testifying police officers are interpreting the events in a biased manner. Moreover, the presented evidence and argumentation do not satisfy any legal criteria and simply insult logic. Similarly, the judge is capable of postponing the hearing only because the plaintiff chose the outfit that is not modest enough, a sleeveless blouse.
The director believes his audience is capable of focus and attention. Through a precise construction and thoughtful script, he slips in all the required data, without delivering preachy monologues or off-frame explanations, allowing the images and the unfolding events speak for themselves. And the calmness or even the restraint of the distant observer, used by Tamhane to unfold his narration, intensifies the feeling of encirclement and entrapment.
Not all the nuances will be clear for international audience who are unfamiliar with Indian contexts, though the numerous awards at international festivals, with Venice’s Orizzonti Award and the Luigi De Laurentiis among the most notable ones, prove that reading all those details is not necessary. An individual’s entanglement, helplessness while fighting the system, a suppression of the voices demanding the change, together with the need for justice are the issues of universal significance.
Apart from the lyrics of Kamble’s protest songs, we won’t hear the word “caste” and the caste discrimination is not straightforwardly mentioned. Nevertheless the background of the accused is quite obvious: during a hearing, when asked about the organizations he belonged to, Kamble names e.g. Dalit Progressive Movement. The deceased sewage worker was also a dalit. Who else would be carrying out the dirtiest of jobs…?
The defense attorney, listening to jazz, meeting friends in fashionable clubs, and shopping in an exclusive deli with Western goods, represents the progressive upper middle class. Highly educated, from a wealthy family, he could have had easily chosen a more prestigious hence profitable job. Yet instead, he opted for a career of a public defender who, with a sense of mission, occasionally gives lectures for social organizations. Vinay is open minded, with an inquisitive and critical approach to facts. He is searching for answers, not formulating them a priori.
The prosecutor, on the contrary, stands for the lower middle class. Nutan appears conservative, closed for any novelties. After doing her job in the courtroom, she picks up her kids from school, comes back home, and engages in the trivial chit-chats about food prices or quality of saris. Then she prepares dinner for her whole family, so they enjoy the meal together in front of the TV. From time to time, she attends theatre shows which under their comic façade, hide slogans of Marathi nationalism directed against the inflow of the workforce from the different Indian states.
Nutan recites the accusation indictment with the dispassionate voice of a bureaucrat, as if she was briefing a shopping list. She acts more like a programmed machine. Her task is to comply with the procedures, to find the accurate paragraphs and loopholes, and use them accordingly. We never see her making any additional inquiries or taking a field trip. Investigating the truth is not her concern. Those accused do not seem worthy beings in the prosecutor’s eyes. They just melt into anonymous mass which she sums up as “same faces, same stories”. From Nutan’s point of view, all those people are guilty and closing a case smoothly is her job. The faster, the better. She takes given evidence for granted, without feeling the need to evaluate and analyze it.
However it is not the director’s intention to impersonate a villain in that character. Tamhane observes her from the same objective distance as the rest of the dramatis personae. Nutan is neither good nor bad, just a common and unremarkable person. A civil servant, one of many, slavishly committed to bureaucratic rules. It is not the individual that is subjected to criticism, but the system, including the educational one, which produces the army of workers who are unable of creative thinking and problem solving, thus act only according to algorithms.
Kamble, with his methods of civil disobedience, bears resemblances to the activists of Kabir Kala Manch, an organization formed in the aftermath of 2002 Gujarat pogrom (a gruesome communal violence between Hindu and Muslim). KKM members, through theatre, poetry and music performances in slum and on streets, wanted to spread the message of egalitarianism, hence raise public awareness, calling for justice in various fields, like economical disparities as well as other social inequalities. Several activists of KKM were arrested under the serious charges of supporting Naxalites (which practically means being a threat to the state). Radical views of the organization and the far too open way of expressing them were not in the best interest of the state government. However, the charges against the artists and the introduced proceedings not only raised many questions, but also aroused controversies. Sachin Mali, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor remained jailed for two years without any trial because of their turbulent songs.
A very similar mechanism, fabricating evidence of alleged conspiracy and threatening the integrity of the state (under enigmatic Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), is also introduced in the later stages of the Kamble’s case.
Other issues shown by Tamhane, like a prolonged arrest and not taking the poor health of the accused into consideration, remind of the songstress Sheetal Sathe who was imprisoned while heavily pregnant. A lower court denied the bail despite her state, and the fact that after a period of living in hiding Sathe willingly turned herself in to the police to clear the case against her and her husband. The Kabir Kala Munch controversies were publicized by the documentary maker Anand Patwardhan in famed “Jai Bhim Comrade”. Tamhane admitted in his interviews that he familiarized himself with Kabir Kala Manch case and Patwardhan’s work while researching for “Court”. So all those connotations are not accidental.
Moreover, Kamble’s character may be shaped after Vilas Ghogre (also shown in “Jai Bhim Comrade”), a singer and activist who committed suicide in a heartbreaking act of resilience after the tragic consequences of the 1997 Mumbai dalits’ protest. As a result of a police opening fire to the protesters, 10 people were killed and dozens were injured. It took 12 years after for the officer who gave order to shoot to be sentenced.
The peaceful protest erupted because a statue of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedhar (the dalit movement icon, a politician, one of the fathers of Indian constitution as well as the first dalit who got university degree) was desecrated. Kamble’s protest songs in the movie are penned by Sambhaji Bhagat, Ghogre’s friend, an activist and also “people’s poet”. Likewise, Vira Sathidar as Kamble, not only is an artist himself, but also a community worker and the editor of radical Marathi magazine “Virodhi”. It fills the character with authenticity as Sathidar knows how to modulate his voice, how to address the audience. Thus the sequences with him could successfully be a part of documentary.
The same sense of realness comes with the character of the victim’s wife who is not a professional actress, but a widow surviving a sewage cleaner. Her confession, given in an informative and emotionless voice, explaining her husband’s work environment, is one of the most powerful sequences in the movie. The only professional cast members are Vivek Gomber and Geetanjali Kulkarni, which results in a very naturalist effect.
What must be underlined is that the dramatic situation of sewage cleaners is not just a narrative flick. Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2005 and 2006 publicized the surveys showing that 80% of those workers die before reaching 60 years of age due to various accidents and health problems caused by the conditions (e.g. similar as shown in the film: gas intoxication leading to loss of conscience and drowning). Furthermore, 95% of the cleaners are uneducated, unqualified dalits, without perspectives for fair employment.
Law regulations regarding the sanitation workers along with the required safety precautions for the job are being notoriously broken, thus the activists are constantly calling the government for an effective action, allowing the legislation as well as its implementation.
The realism, subtlety, and severity of the narrative methods, joined with the importance of the chosen subject, resemble the early works of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani (especially “Aakrosh” rings the bell). Although the director has not avoided some lapses (like the needless sequence after his story gets the perfect closure), this debut is astonishingly mature, and furthermore, aware. Every shot seems well planned. Despite the heavy weighted social issues, at no time the movie turns into a propaganda or didactic leaflet. All the tension is lurking under the surface. Tamhane’s voice definitely deserves attention with its boldness and courage, and not conforming with any artistic compromises.
Upon limited release in India, the movie was critically acclaimed and carried on to get the National Film Award for the Best Feature Film, which is the most important laurel for the Indian filmmakers. Hence it remains one of the most significant Indian movies made in recent years.