The Indian justice system is on trial in one of the most assured debuts in recent times.
Court is a “Bollywood” movie in the sense it was released in cinemas this year and contains a fair amount of Hindi. Chaitanya Tamhane’s brilliant debut chronicles the inherent absurdities and cruelties of the Indian judicial system through the trial of a radical Dalit poet (Vira Sathidar), who has been arrested on the dubious charge of having incited a sewage cleaner to suicide through one of his songs. The plodding pace of Narayan Kamble’s trial is mirrored by the leisurely narrative. In between the seemingly routine court appearances that appear to stretch on for eternity, the defence lawyer (Vivek Gomber, also the movie’s producer) hangs out at a jazz club and picks up wine from a gourmet food store, while the public prosecutor cooks for her family and watches a play.
Tamhane adopts a strictly observational tone, relies on realistic dialogue and acting. There is no soaring background music to cue in emotions, and the narrative appears to eschew all comment. But there is no mistaking the quiet outrage over the curbs on Kamble’s freedom of expression and the general culture of intolerance that cobbles the defence lawyer’s struggle for a fair hearing.
Is Kamble an artist asking tough questions or an anti-national? And what about the sewage worker, in whose name the state has thrown Kamble into jail? The movie keeps a tight lid on emotions, but one sequence lays bare Court’s ideological bent and subversive streak: the deposition of Sharmila Pawar, the sewage worker’s widow.
Pawar is played by Usha Bane, who lives in a slum in Dahisar, a suburb on the edge of Mumbai, and has never acted before. “We were blown away by her very first audition, and we could not believe how well she was performing,” Tamhane said. “She was given an imaginary situation in the courtoom and she had to improvise. “Her husband was an ambulance driver who had died in an accident, and she had been to court several times to answer a lot of questions, so she knew what the scene was about.”
Court is a tightly scripted film with no room for improvisation, down to the monosyllabic replies that Bane gives to the defence lawyer’s increasingly troubling questions. “These are lines for somebody to assimilate and make them their own, and Usha needed very little direction,” Tamhane said.
The sequence came in the middle of the shoot, by which time Court’s shooting style – long takes, numerous mid-long shots – had already been established. The courtroom portions were shot in sequence since the filmmakers had the set for only a week, Tamhane explained. “By then, we already had the language of the film down.” Two cameras were used by cinematographer Mrinal Desai in the courtoom bits to capture the reactions of all the characters. “It was a totally scripted set-up, and if there was the slightest hesitation in what the actors were saying, we had to start all over again,” Tamhane said.
Clip courtesy Zoo Entertainment.