Court, written and directed by the debutant Marathi filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane, is India's official entry to the Oscars this year. The National Award-winning indie was premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival in September 2014, where it won the Best Film award in the Horizons section. What makes Chaitanya's film stand out among the rest is its multifaceted nature. While it prima facie comes across as a courtroom drama, there are many ways to approach the film.
First, as a character study about four distinct but brilliantly sketched out caricatures: those of an aging folk singer accused of abetment of suicide, Narayan Kamble; an upper class Gujarati lawyer who represents him, Vinay Vora; a Marathi-speaking pedantic female public prosecutor, Nutan; and a particularly conservative judge who presides over the hearing, Justice Sadavarte. While the characters complement one other quite well, at the same time, they seem endowed with their own set of idiosyncrasies and contradictions which help breathe life into each one of them.
"He wants us see the different sides to his characters. But, he doesn't want to spoon-feed us. There is no black or white here, all gray!"
Second, as a social commentary on the endless plight of the backward castes in modern India: the Dalits continue to face hardships despite everything that has been done to guard their rights and interests. The major cause, of course, is illiteracy. Even though a considerable chunk of seats is reserved in educational institutions for the scheduled castes and tribes, the fact of the matter is that the standard of primary education in our country continues to be below par.
Third, as a critique on the Indian legal system: How lawmen tend to twist and manipulate simple and straightforward things, thereby making it nigh impossible for the layman to understand and interpret the law. How desperately dependent, judges and lawyers still are on the arcane/obsolete laws passed during the time of the British Empire. How lost, oppressed and disoriented a layman feels while standing in the court of law that's actually supposed to protect his interests.
Fourth, as a mockery of the immoral modus operandi the police often adopts in order to get the accused convicted in the court of law like fabricating evidence, presenting stock witnesses to influence the outcome of a case, or charging the accused under wrong sections of the IPC to ensure that the bail is not granted. How police acts as a mere puppet in the hands of the politicians/ruling party.
Fifth, as an exemplum of how a traditional art form can be used to inspire and awaken the masses from the deep slumber of ignorance and indifference or to incite the common man against the administration, thereby posing a threat to national integrity. During the early days of the freedom struggle against the British, traditional folk theatre forms like 'Jatras' were extensively used to spread the awareness about colonial suppression. In Court, it is Kamble's Lok Shayari that performs a somewhat similar task of stirring up the masses against the omnipresent oppression, hypocrisy, and prejudice.
While Court is primarily targeted towards the English-speaking audiences in both India and abroad, it carries a universal appeal, as obvious from the various awards that it has won at film festivals in both India and abroad. The harassment of the layman at the hands of lawmen is not uncommon even in the developed world. In India, the judges, like doctors, are held in the same esteem as the God and yet they are far from being infallible.
"Kamble's poetry is ripe with pungent criticism and he is hell-bent on shaking the very foundations of our faulty system."
In the movie, a conservative judge refuses to hear a woman's case because she is wearing a sleeveless dress. Later on, in another scene, he is advising a man to take numerological consultation for his sick son. What is Chaitanya trying to tell us? He wants us see the different sides to his characters. But, he doesn't want to spoon-feed us. There is no black or white here, all gray! Kamble's poetry is ripe with pungent criticism and he is hell-bent on shaking the very foundations of our faulty system. He doesn't really care about the collateral damage as long as he succeeds in delivering his revolutionary message.
Overall, Court comes across as a multifaceted work of cinema that is extremely relevant to our times. The movie impeccably blends cerebral and emotional elements while never compromising on subtlety and detail to conjure up a powerful social commentary oozing with tragicomic motifs. The still camerawork (with the camera often held at a distance), minimalist mise en scène, and the movie's deliberate pacing accentuates the slowness of the judicial process in India. Although, it is not meant for casual viewing, Court is a film that needs to be watched, especially now that it has been chosen as India's official entry for the Oscars.
A version of this article was first published at A Potpourri of Vestiges.