Chaitanya Tamhane's debut feature Court steers clear of courtroom drama

  • Gautaman Bhaskaran, Hindustan Times, Venice
  • Updated: Sep 06, 2014 20:28 IST

The second Indian movie at the ongoing Venice International Film Festival was writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane's debut feature, Court. The most striking aspect about this movie was its narrative style - which was so very different from the courtroom battles we have seen in Hindi cinema.

There is absolutely little drama in Tamhane's Court. No fiery speeches, no sarcasm, no punchy dialogues, no theatrics - the kind we saw in the recent courtroom film, Jolly LLB, for instance. Tamhane's Court is realistic. The judge in the Sessions Court is ordinary. The prosecution lawyer is housewife once she steps out of the hallowed premises of the court, and the defence counsel is no hero either.

And it is in these settings that we see a story unfold, the story of an ageing folk singer, whose lower middleclass existence forces him to take private tuitions and who is accused of abetting the suicide of a sewage worker. The prosecution plea sounds absurd. The folk singer had in one of his ballads egged sewage labourers to kill themselves. The following morning, a worker is found dead in a gutter. Did he kill himself or was his death accidental? The prosecution alone is sure that it was the folk song which had pushed him to suicide.

The multilingual film may work in the festival circuit, but is bound to be impeded by its authenticity and thin plot in theatrical release.

In an interview with HT on September 5 at Venice, Tamhane says that he researched for a long time before scripting Court. He attended several court sessions and watched the interplay of judges, lawyers, suspects and criminals.

He avers, "The judiciary is an authorised but violent institution that metes out life and death judgments. It is one of those platforms, where otherwise bracketed people from across class and cultures, interact and mingle. I was curious to explore the figures of authority involved in a trial: the judge, prosecutor and defence lawyer, who are themselves slaves to rules, protocol and hierarchy. I soon realised that these people come from the same families, the same socio-cultural context that the rest of us belong to. The only difference is that they happen to be in a position of power. So in that way, the movie also became a study of the society, the collective."

"I started out by interviewing a lot of lawyers, activists, and academics. Their insights about the judiciary became the foundation of the script. I was also inspired by the trials of cultural activists across the country who were persecuted for their ideologies rather than their actions… As my protagonist, Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar) was."

Kamble is a man who sings songs highlighting the pressing issues of the day. It can be termed 'protest music', which was 'born as a reaction to British colonialism', and later became an offspring of the communist parties. In the last hundred years, Mumbai has been an arena for protest politics. Since the 1930s, artistes have sung protest songs and staged agit-prop plays.

"Kamble belongs to the Dalit community, a group that has been traditionally regarded as untouchables. His is a history of thousands of years of oppression and marginalisation. His character is based on the protest singers of the Dalit Panther movement of the seventies and part of a radical anti-caste movement."

"Today, all these groups and the movement inhabit a diminished space. All forms of resistance (legal and cultural) are being neutralised and under constant state surveillance."

Tamhane contends that when he started researching and writing Court, he had not envisaged it as a critique of India's legal system. "For me more than the story and the characters, it is the setting which excites me. I wanted to create a realistic mood and atmosphere in a courtroom, and what you see in my movie is completely different from what is presented in the films on this subject. In an actual sessions court, there are no histrionics, no microphones, and nobody knows what is going on. But yet some of the stories that unfold there are stranger than fiction."

A still from Chaitanya Tamhane's Court which is the story of an ageing folk singer's struggle against the judiciary

Tamhane's Court hits these points bang on. There is no sharp oratory, no moral sermons. But, yes, what moves and troubles us is the utter helplessness of the accused, Kamble, who comes from a poor socio-economic background. Kamble has to stay in jail for months (or years) only because he cannot wield money and muscle power. And in a way, the prosecution appears pushier than the defence.

Is there some hidden power which is interested in keeping Kamble in prison? Is the judge partisan to the prosecution? Why does the defence seem so helpless?

These are some of the questions which are bound to exercise our minds as we walk out of the screening of Court.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice International Film Festival)

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