Court

 

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This is the Indian satire that claimed two major prizes at the 2014 Venice Film Festival and then made its way onto the festival circuit internationally.  

 

Outside of Bollywood movies few films by Indian directors get released here, but this first feature written and directed by Chaitanya Tamhane is an exception. The story it tells is of a poet and folk singer in his sixties, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who is arrested and brought to court in Mumbai because one of his protest songs allegedly led to the suicide of a sewage worker. Kamble’s defence lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) quickly realises how weak the case is – there’s not even any clear evidence that the death in question was a suicide – but it becomes clear that Kamble is being targeted by the authorities who will use any excuse – not to mention antiquated laws still on the statute book – to put down somebody whom they regard as likely to encourage unrest.

I understand that courtroom dramas appear regularly in Indian cinema and the plot here would lead one to expect Tamhane’s film to belong to that genre. But for this attack on the legal system in India he has opted instead to adopt a satirical approach. Bureaucracy and corruption that impede justice can of course be portrayed effectively through satire. In literature Charles Dickens famously took that route in Bleak House, while in the Second Act of his stage play One Way Pendulum N.F. Simpson memorably sent up legal procedures during a case in the Old Bailey. But Dickens placed his satire within a context that provided many tonal variations and Simpson was dealing not in social criticism but in absurdist comedy designed to score laughs. In contrast, despite the critical eye in Court extending to other social issues, the focus throughout almost two hours is exclusively on the case and the only additions beyond glimpses of other prosecutions are passing glances at the home lives of those involved. These include the female prosecutor, the judge and Sharmila Pawar, the widow of the dead man called in as a witness.
  

Court

Court in the act: Vira Sathidar (far right)

 

Tamhine obtains good performances all round but adopts a very steady pace and brings a simple directness to the look of the film. The decision to use satire may be seen as a sophisticated approach but it takes away any real sense of drama without attempting to replace it with the kind of humour that would entertain in its own right while still leaving us aware of the inherently serious criticism of the system. It is easy to respect this film but, even if its humanity is apparent, the tone limits any deep engagement with it. An unnecessary coda about the judge going on holiday underlines Tamhane’s fallibility of judgment (the closing down of the courtroom at the end of the current sessions but with no close of the current case against Kamble would have provided a perfect last scene). Furthermore, what is missing is illustrated in the film’s best sequence: it shows Vora driving home the witness Sharmila and it reveals a destination of extreme decrepitude. There –and only there – does one experience the shock of total identification.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON       

  

Cast: Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vira Sathidar, Pradeep Joshi, Shirish Pawar, Usha Bane.

  

Dir Chaitanya Tamhane, Pro Vivek Gomber, Screenplay Chaitanya Tamhane, Ph Mrinal Desai, Pro Des Pooja Talreja and Somnath Pal, Ed Rikhav Desai, Music Sambhaji Bhagat, Costumes Sachin Lovalekar.

 

A Zoo Entertainment production-Day for Night.
115 mins. India/The Netherlands. 2014. Rel: 25 March 2015. Cert. PG.