“Court”… An impressive achievement

Posted on April 30, 2015


Spoilers ahead…

Note the way Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court begins. An old man. A bunch of kids. The setting: an unremarkable room. The old man is trying to teach the kids something. He’s teaching them about butterflies. He’s teaching them about the country’s geography. Now, note the way Court ends. Another old man. Another bunch of kids. The setting: a water park. This time, the old man is asleep and the kids play a prank on him. He wakes up with a start. He’s angry. He slaps a kid. There’s a world of quiet, distant observation between these two scenes. The earlier old man sits on a lower rung of the social ladder. He’s a Dalit poet-activist. He’s trying to better the people around him. The old man at the film’s end is at the very top of the ladder. It’s not just that he can afford to go to that water park. It’s also that he’s a judge. In the System, he’s practically some kind of god, inspiring people to stand up in his presence as he hands down oracular pronouncements. And yet, there’s nothing… now how do I put this?… socially useful he’s shown doing. Outside of court, we just see him chilling out. This isn’t an indictment. He probably works hard inside that court, and he’s entitled to his relaxation. Who are we to judge? But that isn’t the point. The point is that the earlier old man cannot afford to relax, not if he dreams of a better world.

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At first, Court looks like a courtroom drama, a rather surreal one. If the phrase “Kafkaesque nightmare” didn’t exist, it would need to be coined to describe the trial of (and the tribulations that befall) Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), the white-bearded Dalit poet-activist who was tutoring those children. In an early scene, he’s introduced as the “people’s poet,” and he begins to sing folk songs about what our economic and political policies have done to his people. He sings about “racist and casteist” jungles. He sings about “knowing your enemy.” He sings about malls. Midway through the performance, the cops come and pick him up. It’s clear that, with the things he’s saying, he’s a thorn in the government’s backside. It’s also clear that the charge they slap on him – of abetting, through a song, the suicide of a manhole worker (his job may involve descending into the hellish bowels of the earth, but his name is most heavenly: Vasudev) – is trumped-up, an excuse to not let Kamble loose on the streets, denouncing the malls that help them show how “shining” the state is.

What’s not clear – at least for a while – is why we see so little of Narayan Kamble. (And we see nothing of Vasudev, who’s simply spoken  about. Would not a shot or two of his work in manholes have been useful to impress on the liberal, well-off audience that’s mostly going to watch this movie, here or abroad, exactly what kind of social inequalities exist in India?) Instead, we begin to follow the lawyer who is defending Kamble, a well-off, well-meaning Gujarati man named Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber). We also get a peek into the life of the prosecution lawyer, a Maharashtrian named Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni). I’m making a point about their ethnicities because that’s partly the point of the film, how people from various classes and various castes and speaking various  languages and belonging to all genders, all converge in court. It’s one big melting pot. Vora may do his grocery shopping at a chichi, air-conditioned store that plays piped music as he picks up (without looking at the price tags) cheeses and wines, but there’s no chichi, air-conditioned court for the likes of him. He has to go to the humid room filled with the kind of people he’d probably never hang out with in real life.

And yet, Court doesn’t judge him. A lesser (and lazier) filmmaker would have made him the villain, the upper-class ogre who frequents the malls that people like Narayan Kamble can only sing about – but Vora is a good man, a bleeding-heart liberal. He fights, in his own way, for human rights. After a day at court, he drives the manhole worker’s wife (Usha Bane) home and offers her money. And he’s the one on Narayan Kamble’s side, while Nutan, who’s closer to Kamble (at least in terms of economic status; plus they’re both Maharashtrians) is the one who’s arguing that Kamble should be locked up. But she isn’t an ogre either. This is just the job she needs to do in order to contribute to a household that consists of a diabetic husband and two young children. Vora may care more about Kamble, but that’s also because he has the time, the luxury to do so. If Nutan began to invest similar emotions into her work, she’d never get home to prepare dinner and still find time to look at some case work. Court doesn’t judge her either.

Court could have been called Mumbai, which is itself a melting pot. The film isn’t really about our judicial system – in any case, we know, from the papers and from films as recent as Shahid and Jolly LLB, all about the apathy of the system and the archaic laws and the word-of-the-law-versus-the-spirit-of-the-law scenarios and witnesses who are coached and how cases go on for years and so forth. It’s more about the teeming metropolis. It is about a defendant named Mercy Fernandez, who shows up in a sleeveless top and is asked to return another day. (The dress is “against the rules.”) It’s about the manhole worker’s wife, who doesn’t know her age. It’s about a Gujarati lawyer thinking nothing of defending a Maharashtrian even as one section of the city around him is turning hostile to people who are not “Marathi manoos.” The film sets up a series of parallel scenes that allows us to take in the differences between Vinay Vora and Nutan. He lives alone. She lives with her family. He drives back home alone in his car, with just jazz music for company. She takes the train, filled with noise. He shops for wine and cheese in that upmarket store. She chats with a co-passenger in that train about the possibility of buying olive oil and multigrain atta. He goes to the kind of restaurant that foreigners visit. She goes to a local eatery with cramped seating. His TV-viewing consists of “intellectual” discussions. Her family prefers soaps. He speaks relatively smooth English, reflecting the convent he probably went to. She speaks English as if it were a sibling of Marathi, filled with hard consonants. His idea of an evening’s entertainment is a stop at a bar where a sultry singer croons a Portuguese song. She goes to a Marathi play, a “comedy” about a Maharashtrian girl who falls for a U.P. boy. The girl’s father will have none of it. He won’t have his daughter marrying this “immigrant,” who’s “stealing their jobs,” who isn’t a “Marathi manoos.” This man should step into the courtroom where Narayan Kamble’s trial is being held. He’d see an “immigrant,” non-“ Marathi manoos” (who hasn’t bothered to pick up much Marathi despite having lived in Mumbai for a while) defending a “Marathi manoos.” Life, sometimes, goes beyond what politicians, with their simple-minded rhetoric, want us to see. And yet, their prophecies are often self-fulfilling. Leaving a restaurant, Vora is attacked on the street. The doorman at the restaurant quietly slips inside and closes the door. This is exactly the kind of reality people crave to escape when they go to these restaurants.

Except for a brief look at the goings-on at a Press Association meeting on the topic of “Skewed Third-Worldism,” Court has no use for –isms, at least not in the placard-waving sense. It’s about everything, and yet, the filmmaking is so delicate that we barely register the import of what we are seeing until a few minutes later, when we put things together and guess this is what may have been intended. Vora, with his background, and Nutan, with her background, and the judge (Pradeep Joshi), with his background (he’s from a family whose women sit at a separate table from the men, who have drinks in their hand; and he believes in numerology and gemstones) – all of this makes up Mumbai, and all of this influences the goings-on in that court. (Now you see why this judge has that attitude about Mercy Fernandez’s attire?)

By any measure, Court is an impressive achievement. The performances are uniformly excellent (no one seems to be “performing”), the craft is exquisite (nothing seems to be “crafted”), and the false notes are few. I didn’t care for the shots of Vora in a beauty parlour. And I winced when a typically fiery performance by Narayan Kamble is followed by a dance by “under-15 girls.” This kind of look-this-is-India editorialising seems targeted at a foreign market, the same audiences for whom some Indian writers write those pieces with lines like “I went to Varanasi and met a man tending to funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges.” This… Western eye, if you will, is also evident in the filmmaking, with its tableaux of static wide shots. In the absence of camera movement, we rely on other things to enliven the frames – people crossing roads and walking past doors, traffic on streets, the fluttering of paper flags above a stage, a boy practicing on Roman Rings. This is the way the Europeans (not to forget Ozu) make their art cinema, and I wonder if – just like our commercial cinema has its own voice, its own distinctive grammar – our art cinema, too, can’t find a style that’s uniquely ours.

But in content, the film is indubitably Indian. Vora’s parents are all-too-Indian, in the way they welcome guests and pile their plates with foods and ask them if they know anything about their son that they don’t. That boundary thing – just not a consideration. And I laughed at the men who drag in a pedestal fan during a speech by Vora and coolly proceed to set it up behind him, not caring a whit that he’s stopped talking. They’re like Nutan, who breathlessly keeps reading out reams of legalese without pausing to consider her surroundings. They’re being asked to do a job, and they’re doing that job, end of matter. The stylistic choices, too, work wonderfully. One, there is no background score. And two, that static camera, which watches without discriminating, without zooming in and alerting us that this person is important or that one, without panning and asking us to focus on this setting or that one, leaving us free to observe what we want to, whether it’s the people arguing or the advocate dozing off in a corner of the frame. Like the director, the camera doesn’t judge.

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.