Dir: Chaitanya Tamhane
There is little doubt that Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, which won the National Award for Best Feature Film in 2015, is one of the most promising debuts for any film-maker in India, and may place the director among the best – if he follows it up with anything comparable. Art cinema in India has been in a moribund state for quite a while with the promise of the 1970s and 1980s largely belied. In the 1980s – before the economic liberalization of 1991 – art cinema addressed a liberal intellectual class which might have been regarded as the national conscience. After the economic reforms of 1991, the nation has no longer been one responsive to moral ideas because its interest/emphasis has shifted to the economic realm. Gradually, it would seem, art cinema has adjusted itself to the scenario since it has been addressing juries instead of a liberal elite. Today’s art films are socially and politically innocuous, arguably because they lack the faith that what they have to say will be heard. It is as though the official rewards bestowed on an art film are in lieu of the state acting on issues, and art films, by and large, seem to have accepted this as natural. Even when they have something powerful to say, they tend to water it down as in the case of Court, which is otherwise admirable.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court begins with an elderly dalit activist and singer Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) being arrested by the police on the charge of abetting suicide. A worker in the municipality, Vasudev Pawar, died while cleaning the sewer and since he did not use safety equipment, his death is considered deliberate and tantamount to suicide. Narayan Kamble gave a performance in the vicinity of Mohan Pawar’s tenement two days before his death advocating (in song) suicide as a preferable alternative for municipal workers, rather than climbing into sewers. Narayan Kamble’s case comes up for hearing and his advocate is a socially conscious young lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), who is unable to get bail for Kamble.
Much of Court takes the shape of court hearings and the film is filmed so authentically – with no indication of the actors being conscious of the camera – that one might even take it for documentary. Making it highly effective is the courtesy constantly on display: the judge being sympathetic but not granting bail, the police inspector being polite but presenting a phony witness, the prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) being human and considerate but often arguing ludicrously – equating the dalit folk-singer with a terrorist and then turning this labeling into a hypothetical one (‘just suppose he had been a terrorist’). Narayan Kamble spends months in jail as the hearing gets postponed time and again. The judge has the reputation of being sharp but – as in actual courts – his tolerance of weak logic from the prosecution is astonishing. At the climax of the film Vinay Vora manages to get Pawar’s wife to give evidence and it comes out that Mohan Pawar was never given safety equipment; his only way of telling whether it was safe to go into the sewers was through the presence of cockroaches. If cockroaches came out it meant that the sewer was free of gas. Pawar was always inebriated when he climbed in because that was the only way he could stand the stench. And despite using cockroaches as safety equipment, Pawar had also lost one of his eyes.
Court has been widely taken to be about India’s apathetic judicial system and Tamhane’s remarks about the film have tended to support it. This issue, I suggest, is a smaller one than the one of municipal workers having to climb into sewers without adequate precautions or, rather, it is a less important one because it is less remediable. India’s judicial system can be safely castigated as an outmoded institution owing to colonialism without anything having to be done, but this is hardly true of the condition of municipal workers - who can be give safety equipment right now. The tone of the film is however hardly that of the activist and it is therefore dealing with the complete hopelessness of a class which has lived with its lot for centuries and therefore does not envisage change in the foreseeable future. This is both admirable – for its honesty – and regrettable for its suggestion of helplessness but I will come to that later in this review.
Court has a narrative which, while being highly effective in its minimalism, can also cause some confusion. This is because of the time spent on the private lives of the various characters – like Vinay Vora (with his parents and sister), the public prosecutor Nutan (feeding her family) and the judge with his kin on a trip to a resort. Nothing much is said through these asides individually but taken together, they convey the sense of well-meaning people only performing their given roles and caught up in a system which leaves them mere cogs. I am not in much sympathy with this ‘cog-in-the-wheel’ discourse about the system by a middle-class film-maker – since the middle-class will resort to anything to cling to its own comforts, including indulging in illegalities. When Vinay Vora is shown to be committed to his client therefore, one cannot help feeling that he does not strain himself enough in doing his duties; he accepts the judges’ decisions too helplessly and too tamely on several occasions. Very often, it would seem, Chaitanya Tamhane’s attempt at minimalism really amounts to his characters exerting themselves minimally. There is also the much more serious aspect of Narayan Kamble being completely alone; a dalit activist in a city who addresses a public from platforms is potentially political capital and one would expect politicians of more than one hue to be willing to assist him because of the constituency he commands. Tamhane is perhaps relying too much on the art film portrayal of the dalit as politically helpless (as in the cinema of the 1970s and 1980s) which might not be true of an activist with a constituency today.
There is little doubt that Tamhane is striving for a laconic tone and satire, and one could cite a human rights speech by Vinay Vora which concludes with a pedestal fan being triumphantly dragged into the hall. There is a sense in the film that this is how serious issues are dealt with in India – in which every issue finds its conclusion only in words being spoken to comfort-loving audiences. But if black comedy is the intent, Court is not as wicked as it should be. Also, one is not sure that it concludes effectively. There is an indication that the judge is privately a believer in matters like numerology, and that may be veiled criticism of the irrational people who are allowed to judge. But one cannot accept the view that upholders of justice need to be ‘rationalists’ in their private life and there is perhaps some lack of judgment on Tamhane’s part.
Court is an exceptional film but one must nonetheless note a strange listlessness about it. It would however not be right to blame its director entirely for it; this is what the art film has essentially become – something in which a paying public is not interested and which relies entirely on state patronage and film festivals, in which delegates watch cinema as if by habit. As it is, Court deals with material that should rightly create a social scandal. This being the case it would be unfortunate if all it does is garner awards for itself – in a film-making milieu where there has been little to compare in terms of cinematic wit and intelligence.