Chaitanya Tamhane’s elegantly assembled and immensely powerful debut packs together observation, humanism, intelligence and beauty. There is also a strong political viewpoint that is not apparent from the way in which its characters have been filmed.

Tamhane’s indictment of the state’s gradual undermining of civil liberties and the freedom of expression opens with a mid-long shot of an elderly man giving tuitions to working-class children. Tamhane and cinematographer Mrinal Desai have described this position as neutral, which, as subsequent events prove, is anything but.

In the next sequence, the teacher, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), is revealed to be a radical Leftist bard . While railing against social injustice, he is arrested mid-verse on the patently ridiculous charge that one of this songs had encouraged a manhole cleaner to commit suicide. It soon becomes apparent that the state machinery wants Kamble and his persuasive protests out of the way, and will endure prolonged litigation to achieve its goals simply because it can.

Ideological lines become clear as a human rights lawyer (Vivek Gomber) argues Kamble’s case, while the public prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) thumps the rulebook and attempts to prove that the poet deserves to be locked away for the greater public good.

There is politics in the cinema and cinema in the politics. The shot-taking style and lengthy takes (the cutting is by seasoned documentary editor Rikhav Desai) put audiences in the role of witnesses to the prosecution of dissidents and other concerned citizens who raise troubling questions about the social and economic order. Kamble is a composite of radical balladeers such as Gadar in Andhra Pradesh and Dalit protest singers in Maharashtra, many of whom were featured in Anand Patwardhan’s stirring documentary Jai Bhim Comrade. Sambhaji Bhagat, one of the stars of Jai Bhim Comrade, has written the songs that the irrepressible Kamble sings when he gets out on bail.

The partly absurdist but also often frighteningly convincing courtroom proceedings further tie the plot to the newspaper headlines. The arguments against Kamble refer to human rights cases in Maharashtra over the past few years involving leftist workers Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves and Kabir Kala Manch members Sheetal Sathe and her husband Sachin Male.

There is no place for silly gimmicks or grandstanding during the battle of wills between an apathetic administration and its disgruntled citizenry in this sober and mature account, but there are flashes of emotion. Many of the actors are non-professionals, of whom the most affecting is Usha Bane, who plays the wife of the dead manhole cleaner. Her courtroom testimony, in which she blandly recounts details of her husband’s alcohol addiction, domestic abuse and grinding poverty, is one of Court’s most effective moments.

Kulkarni is one of the very few professionals in the cast, and the talented actor imbues her hidebound state-appointed lawyer with human feeling as she chats about the merits of olive oil during a train ride and cooks dinner after a long day of work while her husband slumps around the house.

Court’s examination of the politics of protest could be true of any corner of India, but it is also a Mumbai film. The movie faithfully replicates the minutiae of city life through its characters, locations, production design (by Pooja Talreja and Somnath Pal) and naturalistic dialogue. One of Tamhane’s influences is Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, and Court echoes that director’s carefully calibrated observations in the way in which Tamhane shows how different social groups in Mumbai live and communicate (the dialogue includes Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi). 

Each of the main characters represents a type that will be familiar to followers of human rights debates in the city and elsewhere. Their political underpinnings come out most vividly in the after-work sequences. Defence and prosecution echo actual cultural divisions as the former relaxes with world music at a modish jazz bar while the latter watches a parochial play with her family.

What does the judge do with his time off, and what does that say about him? Tamhane reserves his final judgement for the masterful epilogue, which returns to the camera position with which the film began.

As the judge enjoys his court break, Kamble’s fate hangs in balance. The fact that Tamhane achieves this basic harsh truth about the justice system in India through a single image most convincingly proves the writer-director’s talent in combining a statement on the human condition with an estimable command over the language of cinema.

Court (2014).