Film Review: Court

Probing Indian Drama Picks Judicial System Apart Piece By Piece

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
“Regarding this recess. ... Will there be swing sets?”
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In the middle of an impassioned performance in a poor neighborhood of Mumbai, a 65-year-old folk singer is arrested. Days earlier, an impoverished sewage worker was found dead. It is believed that the worker committed suicide, climbing down a manhole without protection to choke on the gasses within, and it is speculated that the aging folk singer incited the act with his inflammatory lyrics. From this bizarre accusation spins Chaitanya Tamhane’s absurdly straight-faced ensemble drama Court.

The film sheds the overstuffed, song-and-dance-and-martial-arts-and-melodrama-laden story lines of most modern Indian films for the slice-of-life pace pioneered by legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray (
Pather Panchali, The World of Apu, The Stranger). Narayan Kamble (well-known singer, poet and Democratic Rights activist Vira Sathidar) is the man at the center of this story, although he all but disappears after his first appearance in court. The wheels of justice turn slowly in India, bogged down as they are in centuries of colonial and postcolonial law—not to mention a dizzying array of dialects that need to be spoken in court. Punctuated by monthly court appearances that last mere minutes, Kamble’s trial drags on and on. Stymied by the arcane laws and endless delays, the film’s story starts to wander off holding hands with the various characters on scene—lawyers, judges, witnesses. Writer-director Tamhane is simply using the folk singer’s ludicrous trial as an excuse to poke his nose into various households, lifestyles, classes and economies in modern Mumbai.

As the trial wears on, it becomes increasingly absurd, with the folk singer absorbing all sorts of secondhand rumors and innuendo. Surely, he’s a radical of some sort, speculate various authorities. Obviously, someone is responsible for the sewage worker’s death. Clearly, the letter of the law (albeit one written during the Victorian era) points the finger at Kamble. And yet, the film never devolves into Kafka-esque,
Brazil-like bureaucratic surreality. Everyone here is operating under the utmost of seriousness. The judge, the prosecutor, Kamble’s public defender, the investigating officers—all of them retain the stiff-upper-lip devotion to duty of former British colonists.

Despite using a trial as its focal point,
Court isn’t really a courtroom drama. Most of the film takes place on the unhurried backstreets of the city. It’s less about the machinery of justice and more about the teeth at the edge of each cog that make that machinery turn. By sending his camera into the lives and homes of the various characters, Tamhane weaves an intriguing tapestry. We see, for example, our young defense lawyer (Vivek Gomber) shopping at an upscale market and hanging out at a chic international bar where an Indian singer performs Portuguese ballads. He’s one of the elite. And yet he volunteers for various social causes and serves as a public defender. By contrast, the annoyingly officious prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) leaves court only to pick up her son at daycare and cook dinner for her husband in a cramped apartment. Even so, she appears to have little empathy for the downtrodden citizens she prosecutes. It’s these behind-the-scenes glimpses Court offers that really get viewers thinking.

Court is a richly textured, finely detailed film, and Tamhane’s unobtrusive style makes it seem almost documentary-like. For a first-time filmmaker, Tamhane has created a surprisingly confident indie effort—one that has already racked up considerable award attention from film festivals and critics associations around the world. Admittedly, a third-act twist may seem out-of-place to some. And at nearly two hours, the film’s languid pace does, occasionally, test patience. You get the impression the filmmaker is deliberately mirroring the snail’s pace of the judicial system he’s depicting. Have patience. Tamhane builds to some powerful, revelatory scenes. One in which the sewage worker’s wife finally testifies is surely the film’s highlight. Although the culture it’s depicting is vividly, vibrantly foreign to American audiences, Court’s simmering anger over the injustices handed out to various economic, educational and racial groups is a topic just about any country in the world can relate to these days.

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