There was a joke doing the rounds that if Batman was based out of Mumbai, he would spend half the night fighting traffic.
Because, you know, this is India and things move at a certain pace.
Even if it's an open-and-shut case taken to court.
Salman Khan was involved in a hit-and-run case in 2002. The case is still being heard in court thirteen years later. And how the narratives have changed.
Time changes things. It blurs out detail.
There's a difference between reading and hearing about the strange ways of the law and actually being in court. While it is easy to poke fun of archaic laws and blame the judiciary, it takes some amount of sensitivity and understanding of the larger picture to craft a critique of the sacred cow without being charged for contempt.
Chaitanya Tamhane's Court is a character study of this beast. By nature, it takes its time. By nature, it plays by the book, no matter how long ago it was written. By nature, laws are interpreted with socio-cultural prejudices of all characters involved.
Hence, the young filmmaker takes his time to make you feel that long-drawn nature of mundane court proceedings. This understated anti-thesis to courtroom (devoid of) drama, borrows its narrative style from the meandering ways of the Court and investigates The Curious Case of Our Never-ending Trials by examining all the characters involved.
(From left) Chaitanya Tamhane, Geetanjali Kulkarni, and Vivek Gomber at the closing ceremony of the 71st Venice International Film Festival
Court spends the first fifteen minutes dwelling upon the world of the accused, a folk-singer and activist from the lower middle class (Vira Sathidar is almost playing himself and absolutely credible) who makes a living by tutoring children and tells us all we need to know about the man, his environment, his belief system and his motivations... before moving this musical chairs storytelling to the world of the elite defense lawyer (producer Vivek Gomber underplays a lonely activist lawyer who runs a thankless NGO with a name people can't bother spelling right) and then on to the prosecution (Gitanjali Kulkarni is fantastic as the middle-class bigoted Maharashtrian who wonders if olive oil is too prohibitively priced) before finally examining the judge (a terrific Pradeep Joshi) himself in a long-drawn epilogue (which I found problematic the first time I watched the film but only made me applaud the director's conviction the second time around).
It's easy to mistake this design for indulgence except that the filmmaker is only trying to make the court experience as authentic as possible.
Even if it means populating the frames with as many people as necessary to get that world right. The director of photography, Mrinal Desai (who also shot The World Before Her), uses his documentary aesthetic to observe the scene from a distance and ends up with a lot of wide shots (which means more extras). This is a brave choice of storytelling because the makers are hoping that the audience will invest in that part of the frame you want them to care for (and not nitpick performances of the extras).
Or maybe the makers just wanted to pan towards the general public to examine what they were taking home from the experience. So, Court will tell us about our audience too. Do they care enough for the heart of the matter or are they easily distracted by all the superficial action around the lack of drama in our courts?
"It's relevant, concerns us all and could be the beginning of a larger, long-due conversation about laws, role of State and the judicial process."
While a tighter cut of Court might have been better for box-office prospects (in the context of dwindling attention spans), this brave choice of preserving the arthouse nature of the beast deserves applause, at least from those of us who have sworn to appreciate it in a market-driven, box-office-governed world.
Very rarely do we get a film as uncompromising as this and one that seems to be resonating with audiences and juries (Court has won 18 International awards including the top prize at Venice and the National award for Best Film) around the world. It's relevant, concerns us all and could be the beginning of a larger, long-due conversation about laws, role of State and the judicial process.
Without doubt, the film India must send to the Oscars.