Vivek Gomber (L) and Geetanjali Kulkarni (R) in a still from 'Court', directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
One of Mumbai's best-kept secrets is a dive bar in the suburb of Juhu that stays open past the regular 1.30 am deadline. On Fridays and Saturdays, especially, the establishment -- which serves Indian and Chinese food -- is usually open till at least 4 am.
It was at this dingy, under-the-radar place that I first met Chaitanya Tamhane and Vivek Gomber, director and producer of Court, which won Best Feature Film at the 62nd National Awards earlier this week. It was late October; the 16th Mumbai Film Festival had just concluded and Court had become the first Indian film to win the highest award as part of the international competition section, aside from also winning an award for direction as well as a jury special mention for its ensemble cast.
This was what you might call the after-party after the actual after-party.
Just earlier that week, I had watched the film in a packed cinema hall at the festival. Tamhane's multilingual courtroom drama was fresh from a number of festival wins, including two big awards at the Venice International Film Festival. The buzz was tremendous. The number of people who stood in line to watch the film rivalled those of Cannes-winning French films playing at the event.
"As film critics in India, home to the largest film industry on Earth, we have a special responsibility to try and help the films that truly deserve to be watched get an audience."
To say that I'd merely loved the film would be an understatement. At the time, as a freelancer, I was writing a festival diary for IBNLive.com, and like every critic, I'd raved about it in my round-up. But, for once, that didn't feel like enough.
Here's my understanding of how to answer a question people love to ask -- why do film critics exist and what is their purpose, especially in this everyone-has-an-opinion-on-the-Internet era? After nearly five years of reviewing films for various publications (which isn't much), I have only one answer: to help guide and shape the conversation around cinema.
This means that it is at least as important for us to champion the good as it is to bury or vilify the bad. As film critics in India, home to the largest film industry on Earth, we have a special responsibility to try and help the films that truly deserve to be watched get an audience. It is an impossible task, of course, pitted as we are against the shrill-yet-powerful might of Bollywood that does all it can to bludgeon us into submission with its recurrent mediocrity.
I called Gomber up two weeks later to ask him if I could help promote Court on social media, since that is an area I have some understanding of and I wasn't at the time a full-time staffer at any publication. It was a shot in the dark -- I had no idea what their plans were, whether they already had someone on board, whether they had any immediate plans for a release or anything of that sort.
Director and screenwriter Chaitanya Tamhane (L) and actor Vivek Gomber
Two weeks later, I met the two of them again at a coffee shop, armed with a number of ideas that I was sure would blow them away. Within ten minutes, Chaitanya had trashed all my ideas. "I don't want to promote this film the way other films are promoted," he'd said. "The film was made in a certain spirit. We want that to be reflected in the way we promote it too."
Marketing professionals might refer to this as KISS -- short for Keep It Simple, Stupid. I realised that they were serious about this. At face value, this defied logic. An independent film largely funded by Gomber himself with the aesthetics of European arthouse fare, and they didn't want to take the path of least resistance and maximum results? They didn't want to take the support of Bollywood by getting a big celebrity and a studio to publicly endorse and 'present' their film to audiences?
Strange. Suicidal even. But, then, how do you even make a debut film as subtle and brilliant as Court without tethering your principles to a rock in the first place?
We started in the first week of December. Amidst constant, daily conversations with Chaitanya, I set up and populated the film's Facebook page. I helped get them in touch with renowned Polish designer Mieczyslaw Wasilewski, who is a bit of a legend in the European arthouse scene, and coordinated with him to get a supremely arty, yet-to-be-revealed international poster made for the film. I gave feedback for the trailers before they released them. I also authored their Wikipedia entry (and continue to make edits.)
"The film was made in a certain spirit. We want that to be reflected in the way we promote it too."
Many filmmakers tend to let go during the promotional parts of a film's campaign, often saying that it isn't their cup of tea, but Chaitanya isn't one of them. His attention to detail, so evident in his film, would come up regularly in our interactions -- for instance, I have gotten Whatsapp messages at 2 am where he has told me to re-word a Facebook post because he wanted "different adjectives" to be used. It doesn't help that he is generally a nocturnal human being. I am not on first name terms with a single person in the film industry on principle, but Chaitanya and Vivek have been to my home and even raided my fridge.
I realise I have crossed an invisible line here. As a film journalist and critic, I am supposed to be on the other side of the fence. Isn't this a massive conflict of interest, you might ask?
Not to my mind it isn't. I watched the film without an agenda and felt compelled to do something about it only after. My contribution is, of course, minuscule. It's not like hundreds of glowing reviews about the film haven't been written all around the world -- and they're all accessible via a few quick Google searches.
But if, with my constant and shameless sharing of any Court-related information, I have contributed to even 10 people knowing about its existence than would have ordinarily happened, then I think I've done my job. And for a film as special as this, which the country will now see after its theatrical release on April 17, it's the least I could have done.
With a total of 18 prizes, it can safely be said that Court is now the most awarded Indian film of all time, at least in terms of sheer numbers. Qualitatively, it can be argued that it is neck-and-neck with the only other contender, Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay!, which has won fewer but heftier awards such as the Audience Award and the Camera D'Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, and Top Foreign Film at the National Board of Review Awards in the same year.
Since I joined HuffPost India full time, I have stopped working for Court. Officially. But I will continue to promote the film in spirit as far as is possible, right up to the end of what now looks like the next logical step: an Oscars 2016 campaign (only in the rare event that the Film Federation of India, the body that selects our Oscar entries, doesn't muck it up as they usually do).
And since that night in late October, we have returned several times to that dive bar in Juhu and others like it, discussing cinema, politics, and other such things over beer and plates of chicken lollipop till dawn. Man, these game-changing filmmakers really know how to party.