At one point in the film, a character opines that she would like to see a suspect sentenced to 20 years in jail instead of going on and on with the tiresome proceedings of his case and that she is bored of seeing the same faces over and over again. The character in question is a public prosecutor named Nutan (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) who is involved in the trial of an aging Marathi folk singer who has been accused of inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide through one of his songs. That one line of her pretty much encapsulates what is wrong with the Indian judicial system.
It’s plainly obvious that is an absurd case and it’s the kind of case that we have never seen explored in a film before. But the truth is that there do exist such cases in India and director Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film Court is a bold and brave portrayal of the Indian judicial system. It’s also a scathing statement on some of the ills that plague our society today. It’s a film that never tries to be flashy nor is it littered with fiery monologues that you would normally notice in a Indian courtroom drama.The characters that populate the story are ordinary people just like you and me.
The most relatable of these characters for me is, naturally, the open-minded and sophisticated defense lawyer Vina Vora (played by Vivek Gomber) who is tasked with defending the aforementioned folk singer Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar). He is able to empathize with him and even pays Kamble’s bail money of Rs. 1 lakh when he realizes that he wouldn’t be able to come with such a ridiculous amount. Vora is a person for whom the expression “a fish out of water” fits perfectly. He comes across absurd characters at his workplace and he lives with his absurd parents who sometimes put him in awkward situations.
On the other hand, Nutan is shown as a middle-class housewife with upper-class aspirations. In one scene, she is shown discussing how expensive a bottle of olive oil is. We get the idea that she wishes to experience a rich life, a life similar to that of Vora’s. One would think that given her background, she is expected to understand the plight of Kamble better. But instead, the seemingly wealthy Vora is the one who empathizes with him. We also see a backstory of the presiding judge, who doesn’t strike one as a sensible man. He is someone who is narrow-minded and believes in ridiculous superstitions. And in a particular scene, he postpones a woman’s hearing just because she came to court wearing a sleeveless top.
The case goes on throughout the year and Kamble is asked to make an appearance several times. He is dragged through a living nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions. His fate is not that different from the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial, who has no clue as to what he is really being charged for. The director shows the backstories of the characters – especially those of the lawyers – to give us an idea of the kind of people they are, the prejudices and sentiments they hold and how they influence their thought processes.
The narrative style Tamhane has adopted here is minimalist. The scenes are framed in calm, static shots that bring to mind the style of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. The camera behaves like a human observer and it’s gaze and movements mimic that of the human eye. This is clearly not a film designed for the ADD crowd. Those who are patient will be left with a rewarding and thought-provoking experience. It’s a strong directorial debut that won several awards at numerous film festivals across the globe.