This week I’m catching up with one more film from last year that I couldn’t review until now, a film from India entitled, simply, Court—it screened at the Loft Film Festival last fall. The debut film by a young director named Chaitanya Tamhane, Court is a drama about the dysfunctional justice system in India, but its relevance extends to any country with an overloaded court calendar and a complex, antiquated system of laws that favor the rich and powerful over ordinary people.
The movie opens with a man in his 60s teaching geography to an elementary school classroom in Mumbai. When the class is over he takes a bus to an outdoor theater where he performs some of his poetry, with musical accompaniment, to an enthusiastic crowd. His poems vigorously attack the sectarianism and nationalism of Indian society, and in the middle of his performance the police come on stage and arrest him.
His name is Narayan Kamble, and the charges against him are bizarre. The prosecution claims that he had earlier performed a song in a slum before an audience that included sewer workers, the lyrics of which encouraged these sewer workers to commit suicide. Later, one of the laborers was found dead in the sewers, having gone there without protective gear, and the government claims that it was suicide inspired by the song he heard earlier. Thus, Kamble is guilty of inciting this illegal act, and the charge carries a 20-year sentence.
The average social message film might push the dramatic angle here, bashing the audience over the head with the absurdity and injustice of the law, but Tamhane, who also wrote the screenplay, does something more interesting. His focus is on the dreary banality of the court, the red tape and the routine that conceals genuine emotions or thoughts under a blanket of indifference. To that end, we get to experience the personal lives of the defense attorney, the prosecutor, and ultimately the judge. The lawyer is a public defender with liberal ideas, financially very well off, and in private life somewhat arrogant and aloof. There are amusing scenes of him bickering with his elderly parents, the father an irascible conservative, the mother nagging him to find a woman and give her some grandchildren. The female prosecutor, on the other hand, who seems callous and insensitive in court, is revealed to be a hard-working mother trying to get by, and in scenes with family and co-workers, and at a play, we get that her job is only one aspect of her life, and not a particularly pleasant one.
The case drags on for months, and it becomes evident not only that the dead sewer worker was not a suicide, but Kamble never sang the suicide-advising song the government says he did. Once out of custody, the intrepid, even-tempered poet goes right back to his political activities, and promptly gets arrested again, and with just as little reason.
The style of Court is deceptively matter-of-fact. It’s only after a careful accretion of detail that we begin to see how the everyday quality of injustice is exactly the point. The film’s unsparing truthfulness caused a bit of a reaction in India. Reportedly, the censors demanded a series of edits before allowing the picture to be released. I’m sure the irony must have been lost on them.
Court is available on DVD.