The Everyday Violence of the Law: Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court

November 2, 2014

By Amit Basole

Chaitanya Tamhane’s directorial debut, Court, is a multilingual, award-winning film on the “quiet violence” of the judicial system and how the State uses it to suppress political activists. Financed by the Hubert-Bals Fund and private equity, it opened to rave reviews and won Best Director and Best Film in the International Competition section of the 16th Mumbai Film Festival. It also premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier in the year, where it won the Lion of the Future Award for the best first feature. Court successfully invokes the mood of a trial based on patently ridiculous charges, conducted with no intent other than disciplining and harassment of an activist. A phenomenon that is all too common in India. The theme is very timely given the increasingly intolerant nature of the Indian State and the large number of political prisoners languishing in jail all across the country.

The film follows the trial of Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a Dalit political activist and lokshahir (people’s poet) who is arrested on stage during a performance in Bombay on charges of “abetment of suicide.” The police claim that Kamble has penned and performed “incendiary” lyrics calling on Dalits to “drown themselves in sewage” provoking a municipal sanitation worker to actually take his own life by drowning in the very sewer it is his duty to clean. The absurdity of the charge is matched by the (mock?) seriousness with which it is pursued but the police and the officials of the Sessions court. While the politics of false charges and suppression of activists via legal means is an important theme in the film, Tamhane also uses the context of the trial to explore the everyday lives of the principal actors in the courtroom; especially the lawyers for defense (producer Vivek Gomber) and prosecution (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni), and the judge (Pradeep Joshi). What emerges is how extraordinary injustice is embedded in quotidian affairs. The prosecution lawyer argues against bail, ensures that an honest man of advanced years rots in police custody for no reason at all and then goes home to cook dinner and watch TV with her family.

The ponderous legal system is certainly the main protagonist, as is evident in the name of the film. And as a useful counterpoint to the brilliant and satirical Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho, Court forces us confront the fact that the byzantine alleyways of justice and the proverbial tarikh pe tarikh, are not merely the unintended result of an uncaring and bureaucratic system but rather used deliberately by the State to remove its more inconvenient citizens for some time, say three or four years. At which time it is the headache of the next set of rulers.

As noted by other reviewers, Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade could serve as the primer or backdrop to Court. Vilas Ghogre the activist and singer with whose suicide over the Ramabai Nagar police firing in 1998 Patwardhan begins the film, could be Narayan Kamble. Indeed the protest poetry that Kamble sings from the stage has been penned by Ghogre’s friend and fellow activist Sambhaji Bhagat, a renowned and powerful lokshahir. Vira Sathidar who plays Kamble is himself a left Dalit political activist and editor of the radical Nagpur-based journal Vidrohi.

The film’s casting is brilliant (and took several months). Vira Sathidar is spot-on as Narayan Kamble. Being an activist himself he knows how to behave, stand, move and speak. His performance to the powerful lyrics of lokshahir Sambhaji Bhagat is also utterly convincing. Film producer Vivek Gomber as Vinay Vora is also very good, as are all the other actors (Geetanjali Kulkarni as the prosecuting attorney, Pradeep Joshi as Judge Sadavarte). Several members of the cast are not professionally trained actors. For example, the woman who plays the wife of the drowned municipal worker is actually the wife of such a worker who lost his life. The films skillful use of Bombay’s multilingual milieu should also be commended. Tamhane uses Marathi, Hindi, English, and Gujarati as needed according to the social context. This may not seem like a big deal, but if one notes how few films are able to do justice to the multilingualism that exists in Indian cities, this emerges as a major achievement.

While the overall aesthetic of the film is “documentary-like” with real locations and use of non-professional actors, Tamhane also makes extensive use of wide-angle shots, very long duration takes, and dramatic contrast cuts. This is a bold move on part of a first-time director since it makes him vulnerable by exposing large compositions to the viewer for long periods of time, to imbibe and criticize. But on the whole the move works well. Wide shots give Bombay city a starring role in the film conveying a sense of social context in which the action is embedded. We see other people, incidental to the scene going about their lives. The long takes slow down time invoking in the viewer a feeling of what it must feel like to be involved in an interminable court case where everything moves at a glacial pace.

The director noted during the Q & A that he is particularly interested in exploring the experience of the law in a Sessions court as a counter-point to the glamorous upper level courts with oratorical performances and tightly woven arguments. Here lawyers need not be articulate and proceedings are simultaneously intensely procedural but also highly disorganized. For example witnesses don’t show up for months because they are “ill,” stock (professional) police witnesses are used, charge sheets are read out in their entirety in monotones, arguments are not convincing, and logic borders on farce.

Overall Tamhane has made a strong debut and has tackled an extremely important theme in a sensitive manner.

But the film does suffer from some problems. While the story and screenplay has been called understated by some reviewers, I found little subtlety in the treatment. Not much is left to the viewer’s imagination. Deliberate contrast cuts, e.g. from a softly lit, fashionable Bombay nightclub to a harshly lit, bleak, sessions courtroom are dramatic but also a tiny bit heavy-handed. The film ends with a scene showing Judge Sadavarte dozing off on a park bench while on a family vacation in Arnala (resort town near Bombay). Meanwhile the under-trial languishes in judicial custody. But where the director chose to end the film is also worth noting. In the last scene, the judge dozes on a park bench while some kids from the family stand nearby and giggle at him. They then come close, shout loudly and startle him out of his nap. He wakes up abruptly, scolds them harshly and falls back to sleep. The end. The obvious conclusion: despite the occasional irritant, justice sleeps on vacation. But if the film had ended with the judge being rudely awakened out of his slumber by the children, how different would the implication have been? Perhaps Tamhane felt that such an optimistic ending would have been out of keeping with the general mood of the film.

Further, the political prisoner theme naturally lends itself to some difficult political questions. In an attempt to make the story “interesting” Tamhane gives the defense lawyer a highly privileged background while making the prosecuting attorney come from a modest, lower-middle class home. The irony is in a scion of a Gujarati business family (his father owns an entire building in Bombay) forging a relationship with a poor, Marathi Dalit activist. Linguistically and in class terms, perhaps the lower-middle class (though most likely Brahmin) prosecuting attorney is closer to the accused than his own lawyer.

In fact, Tamhane goes to great lengths to establish the points of difference between Vora and Kamble. The lawyer speaks English-medium quality English, shops for expensive wine and cheese, frequents upscale nightclubs, listens to jazz in his car and watches news about the Jaipur Lit Fest on his Apple Macbook. He also does not speak very much Marathi. In one telling scene, while the accused is on stand in the courtroom being cross-examined by the prosecution in Marathi, the defense lawyer pleads for the proceeding to occur in Hindi. The accused, Kamble, says he is more comfortable in Marathi. Vinay Vora is thus the epitome of the “outsider” as far as Narayan Kamble’s social context is concerned.

What are we to make of this? In the Q & A after the movie, the director defended this set-up by saying it was “more interesting.” Perhaps so. But what message does it send? We are never told how Vora comes to defend Kamble, what the former thinks about the latter’s politics and struggle. It doesn’t appear to be the case that Vora is simply a public defender who has been assigned the case. Rather he seems to be Kamble’s lawyer. Certainly upper class lawyers can and do choose to fight such cases. But what is being suggested by drawing attention to how out of touch with his client’s life and social context the lawyer is?

This connects to the films intended audience, which not surprisingly seems to be the English-speaking middle class. This is a good thing, in so far as the film enables a class that has minimal contact with this side of the justice system to get a peek into its workings. But unfortunately, a voyeuristic peek and a coming away with shaking of the head at the deplorable state of affairs is all we are likely to have here. The film does not really unsettle any middle-class conceptions. Rather it confirms them. In the process it even makes fun of all the characters, apart from Vora and Kamble, that inhabit this universe (judging in part by the audiences’ laughter, for which the director of course cannot be entirely help responsible). Their earnestness in following court protocol, their heavily Marathi-accented English, one suspects even their lack of cosmopolitanism, become objects of amusement. A link of sympathy is forged between the audience, Vora, and Kamble, bypassing the social classes in the middle, who are mostly hostile.

What is also missing is a sense of the community from which Kamble comes or for which he has dedicated his life. There are references to the youth who form part of his cultural troupe and one young man is shown working with Vora. But that is all. Ironically we get back-stories or backgrounds for everyone but Kamble. We don’t see his family or where or how he lives, who his friends are. He is the archetypal “wronged Dalit.” Not innocent, he is, after all, political, but a two-dimensional representation of a Dalit activist, nevertheless. The dead municipal worker of course needs no backstory because he is not a person. He stands for the most degraded citizen who society literally kills with its waste.

It is possible that the director did not venture far in this direction because he wanted to stay close to the kinds of people he feels he knows well enough to characterize convincingly. It is also possible that, as is evident in the title of the film, he was more concerned with exploring the characters that inhabit a Sessions courtroom. But then a political trial which eventually progresses to a sedition charge under UAPA, no less, was not the best way to explore those characters, since much larger themes are raised by doing so and they must be dealt with.

But the complaints above notwithstanding, on the whole Court is a welcome development in Indian cinema from an assured and sensitive directorial voice. Such honest filmmaking especially on dissent is greatly to be desired given the narrowing of space for critical thinking in the Modi-obsessed middle-class. We look forward to many more films from Chaitanya Tamhane.

I thank Swati Birla for comments and discussion.

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