A Review of the movie ‘Court’
Niyati Karia, Writer
Winner of two awards at Venice International Film Festival in 2014 -- marking India’s entry in the Best Film Festival of 2016 -- 27-year-old Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut feature film, ‘Court’ is a highly acclaimed and breath-taking film. The film went on to win eighteen other awards at several film festivals. The film portrays quintessential courtroom drama; however, it exploits the true reality of judicial proceedings. The monotonous courtroom scenes are illustrated with basic arguments and lengthy procedures. The film addresses the unsparing, undramatic and unforgiving impact of judicial trials on the facilitators and seekers of justice who are inadvertently trapped in the labyrinth of the justice system – even beyond the four corners of the court of law.
The film revolves around four main characters, thereby showcasing interaction and negotiation of class, caste and gender with the law of the land. Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a Dalit activist, sings powada in public on the themes of social discrimination and oppression faced by the lower castes. He is arrested on the pretext of abetment of suicide. The suicide is committed by a manual scavenger worker. Kamble is charged to incite the said deceased to drown in the manhole by his own accord. The charges are absurd as there is a very far-fetched connection between the cause of the death and the singer. The film thereafter unfolds the events that involve outdated- archaic laws, their literal interpretation, dysfunctional legal system and narrates nuances of human failings at multiple levels in the institution that renders justice.
The film takes you through the rustic chawls, slums and posh streets of Mumbai, providing glimpses of the Session’s Court. A Mumbaikar himself, the director has made the use of multilingual milieu (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English) to add flavours of humanistic tones to the film. The director has chosen wide-angle, long static shots, metaphorically reflecting the extensive and dreaded procedure of the judicial system. The camera work signifies the lack of urgency or emotions, making several actors, besides the protagonist, incidental to the screen. It was a deliberate attempt to put the audience at a critical distance, letting them imbibe and appreciate the gravity of the scenes and contemplate the social context.
I thought the casting was simply splendid. 80-90% of the actors are not professionally trained actors. Vivek Gombre and Geetanjali Kulkarni are the only trained actors. Narayan Kamble is a real-life cultural activist. Kamble is actually voiced by Sambhaji Bhagat, who was a friend of Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit activist, poet and artist who died of suicide following the Ramabai Massacre (mass killing of Dalit residents of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar Colony in Mumbai) in 1997. Bhagat himself is a Lok Shahir and writes public songs and ballads (Powada). The widow of the deceased manhole worker (Usha Bane) who gives the testimony in the film, is herself an actual widow of the worker who died in a similar accident. Assembling actors with raw and powerful acting skills, to bring out rich complexities in the characters and have a naturalist approach -- it’s not an easy job and was carried out to perfection.
‘Court’ reflects upon the general plight of the sewage workers (manual scavengers) in India. According to recent statistics, 282 deaths have been recorded due to manual scavenging in the last four years. Even after urbanization and advancement of technology, the sewage workers are sent to clean sewers without safety equipment or any gear to protect from the hazardous toxic gases. According to the widow’s testimony, Vasudev Pawar (deceased sewage worker) used to drink alcohol daily before entering the sewer. It was the only way he could gain the strength and courage that it took to tolerate toxic gases. In order to know if there is enough oxygen supply to enter into the manhole, the workers throw stones in it. If cockroaches come out, it indicates that it is safe to set foot in the manhole. Absence of scientific technology and equipment killed Vasudev, and countless other workers like him.
The film also exploits the class-caste privileges in Indian society. Vinay Vora (defense attorney) is an elite Gujarati human rights and criminal lawyer. He’s shown visiting posh-bars with his bourgeois friends and buying cheese and wine without batting an eye at the price tag. Nutan (prosecutor) on the other hand comes from a lower-middle-class family. She juggles between the professional and personal life. There is a sharp contrast between these two characters. Vinay falls asleep while watching television, meanwhile Nutan, after feeding her family, is seen with case briefs and files at night. Vinay who speaks fluent english and challenges draconian statutes, experiences anxiety of being distanced from the conservative workings of the court, speaks volumes about his privilege. While, the act of Nutan whining about buying olive oil with her fellow commuter, reeks of her status quo. Kamble, conflictingly, is a 68-year-old Dalit cultural activist who gains income by tutoring children. From his testimony, we can know that he is affiliated with some political organization, was part of a National Youth movement and a Dalit progressive movement. He is re-arrested for the offences related to sedition and abetment, because of the mere fact that he belongs to the lower strata of the society and is easy to put him behind the bars. Kamble’s life divulges the never-ending struggle of a lower-caste man.
Diverse ideologies are displayed in the film. Although a confident woman, Nutan is conservative at heart. She does not raise fundamental questions about the validity of law. She is disinterested in her case and advocates that the accused should get the highest punishment. She is shown as a hard-core right-wing xenophobe, as she passionately believes in the anti-immigration laws. Vinay Vora is a liberal elite. It is interesting how the man from privilege defends the ‘downtrodden.’ The saviour complex is seen where he helps out the widow by putting in a word for her to get a job for living. The director through his character tries to convey that only rich affluent people can afford to take a liberal stance. Kamble is an Ambedkarite-Marxist. Ambedkar’s photo during his stage performance as well as his songs on Dalit oppression and capitalism highlights the fact. Judge Sivatre is ambidextrous. In his professional life he is an authoritative figure- an upholder of justice and equality. But in his personal life he manifests to be a very superstitious person and suggests consulting a numerologist rather than consulting a therapist.
The director does not make anybody ‘villain’ in the film. All individuals fall prey to the corrupt system and live their life being ignorant about it. He neither sympathises with Kamble nor with Nutan. He is upset with the fact that all actors are just cogs of the wheel in the justice system. A system that victimises the ‘lowly’ and poor.
The film is based on real-life experiences and is triggered by several events which took place before the making of this film. Jiten Marandi was the key accused in a massacre at Jharkhand due to Maoist movements. He was accused in 2007 and on the basis of mistaken identity was acquitted in 2013. Kamble’s identity is based on this incident. Vira in real-life is the editor of radical Marathi based publication- Vidrohi. The suicide of Vikas Gigre in Ramabai massacre in Maharashtra, was also a key feature to base the story on. The Kabir Kala Mandal, Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, Arun Ferreira, and several other Dalit activists forms foundational bases of this film’s subject-matter.
‘Court’ is undeniably relevant in the current scenario, wherein dissent has essentially been criminalised under the archaic colonial laws of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2008 and Dramatic Performances Act, 1876. Such laws severely affect the civil liberty of the citizens. The film exposes a farcical and outlandish state of Indian courts. The director has added black comedy, irony and tries to shatter the glorified connotation of the words - ‘justice’ and ‘equality.’ The film moves at a very slow pace with the camera lingering even after scenes would ideally end. The film entails all the nitty-gritties of real-life first-hand experience of actual functioning of the court. It urges the audience to ponder upon the question of who is the actual accused in the ‘Court’- Narayan Kamble, ‘We the People of India’ who form the social fabric of the society, the government or the Indian justice system? All these intricacies are beautifully spun and woven into this masterpiece!