Directed by: Chaitanya Tamhane.
Written by: Chaitanya Tamhane.
Starring: Usha Bane (Sharmila Pawar), Vivek Gomber (Vinay Vora), Pradeep Joshi (Judge), Geetanjali Kulkarni (Public Prosecutor), Shirish Pawar (Subodh), Vira Sathidar (Narayan Kamble).
Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film Court looks at the Indian legal system, in all of its ridiculousness, in a film that moves slowly – grinding along more like how the legal system really is, rather than the way it is portrayed on TV. It follows the case of a folk singer, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) who is arrested and charged with “abetting suicide” – apparently because he sang a song saying that sewer workers should kill themselves, and then a sewer worker killed himself. The case is hardly airtight – there is a legitimate possibly the worker died not because of suicide, but of stupidity, and the prosecutor has a very hard time even finding witnesses who could state with certainty that Narayan even said the sewer workers should kill themselves. The prosecutor wants him charged anyway – and put away for 20 years. He’ll do something else soon, she supposes, so better just to lock him away.
The courtroom scenes in Court are hardly scintillating stuff – as the various lawyers make their arguments, and the strange judge rules on them. Some of it borders on the absurd – like when the judge refuses to hear one case because the woman involved is wearing a sleeveless shirt. Some of it is quietly touching – like an extended cross examination of the widow of the man who apparently died of suicide, describing him as a violent alcoholic, and her life but before and after his death – both of which seem depressing.
The film is probably better when it ventures outside of the courtroom – as it often does. In court, we like Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), who is fighting for a good cause. Outside of the courtroom though, he’s kind of an asshole – he rich and entitled, and quite clearly looks down on those around him. He eventually gets his comeuppance – in a way – but even he didn’t quite deserve that. The prosecutor is played by Geetanjali Kuulkarni – who we in the audience disagree with in court – she is clearly trying to push through a weak case – but when we see her outside of Court, she appears to be a hard working woman trying her best to juggle a career and family. Just as you start to feel for her, she goes to a racist play however – insulting immigrants to no end. In the final scenes of the movie, Court follows the Judge into his outside world. These scenes are quite good – and contains the films haunting final image, even if it perhaps underlines things a little too strongly.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of another filmmaker – not a feature director, but a documentarian – Frederick Wiseman. He too has made films with titles focused on an institution – and Tamhane has a similar shooting style – long, static shots that go on far longer than most directors would hold them. The courtroom scenes in particular have the feel of authenticity to them because of the way they are shot.
Court, it must be said, is a little on the slow side – the film strives for authenticity in the courtroom scenes, and only occasionally doesn’t in the scenes outside of court. The film has the rhythms of real life, and therefore, is perhaps a little too slow for some. But patient viewers will be more than rewarded by Court, which builds slowly, but is worth the effort. It’s not quite a great film – but it’s an interesting one, and a debut that makes me want to see what Tamhane does next. He’s the real deal.