Direction (and writing): Chaitanya Tamhane
Cast: Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vira Sathidar, Pradeep Joshi
A day before Chaitanya Tamhane's award-winning multilingual film (Marathi, with Hindi, English and Gujarati), Court, released, there was news that the censor board had asked for two lines to be deleted. One concerned a propaganda Marathi play, dealing with the anti-north Indian sentiment; the other line with which the CBFC had an issue had to do with the term 'aai-mai' (mother-sister) featuring in it.
It could be a scene from Court, which deals with intolerance and censorship. We live in strange times, where expressing dissent has consequences, where everyone is quick to take umbrage. It makes Tamhane's film that much more relevant.
A sewage cleaner, Vasudev Pawar, has died, ironically, by falling into a sewer. A rebel poet, Narayan Kamble (Vira Satidhar), has been arrested on grounds of abetment of suicide because, allegedly, he stood nearby, Pied Piper-esquely singing about suicide.
It is an absurdist premise. Pawar is arrested frequently, on little ground, because his anti-establishment songs are seen as dangerous. In the way his case drags, unendingly, illogically, it reminds you of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Even more acutely, in its sharp satire of a dystopian system, it shares sentiments with Tagore's Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards).
In Tagore's play, a rigid, unquestioning regime is governed by redundant laws. In Court, the prosecutor (Geentanjali Kulkarni) is the agent of such a system. She reads out long legal notes impassively; says 'I strongly object' with no emotion; and refers to redundant Victorian laws; and when faced with logic, argues, 'but the law is there'. Tamhane lends a dry humour to the procedural scenes. At one point, the judge rejects the case of a certain Mercy Fernandes because she's wearing a sleeveless top, considered 'indecent' in court.
Yet, it'd be myopic to say that the critique is of the judiciary alone. It is symbolic of a systemic rot - in governance and education. So, sewer cleaners work in inhuman conditions, even as products of rote learning debate in court why the victim chose not to wear protective gear.
There are no villains, since we're all products of our milieu. The film attempts to establish that by following the central characters out of court. Yet, herein also lies the film's weakness. Glimpses into the lives of the judge, the prosecutor and the defender Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, also the producer) - each representing different social strata - encourage the audience to judge them on the basis of clichés.
The prosecutor leads a mundane life comprising household chores, a diabetic husband, and propaganda plays by means of entertainment. Vora is the polar opposite - the urban elite who shops for wine and cheese, and hangs out at pubs where songs from Brazil spark conversations about foreign holidays. The weakest portrayal is that of the judge, who advocates numerology and astrological gemstones, and slaps a kid who plays a prank. A statement about rash justice and power structure, perhaps, but a simplistic one.
Yet, National Award-winner Court does several things right. The understated performances, not just from the principal cast (the support cast comprises non-professional actors), are a departure from the usual histrionics in courtroom dramas. The cinematography is exemplary. An abundance of fixed, wide-angle shots provide the perspective of an observer at the back of the room.
Above all, Court does brilliantly what a lot of cinema aspires to do. It holds up a mirror to society; and it makes you worry about what you see.