My first film at this year’s Sydney Film Festival was Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, an Indian film that packs a great deal of social commentary — with an intelligent, understated touch — into a courtroom drama.
Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar) is an ageing folk singer in Mumbai who divides his time between teaching in the surrounding cities and performing fiery protest songs on makeshift stages with a troupe of musicians. As the film opens, we see one such event closed down by the police, with Kamble arrested; later on, his defence lawyer Vinay Vora (actor-producer Vivek Gomber) goes to the police station to figure out what has happened.
It turns out that the charge in this case is unusual. Kamble has been arrested for abetment of suicide in the case of a sewage worker, found dead just days after a performance of Kamble’s in which he (according to the police) incited all manhole workers to suicide. Vora sets to work on the case, and proceedings begin before a lower court in Mumbai.
From here, director Tamhane turns his lens on all the principal players in the courtroom, starting with defence lawyer Vora, a local boy expensively educated elsewhere, who goes to cool nightspots and buys wine and cheese for dinner… but takes his client’s case very, very seriously.
Public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) is quite different: she’s ambitious and dismissive, but far more comfortable working within the local system and with whatever evidence and witnesses the police deliver. What we see of her home life is more traditional and middle-class: she catches the bus, cooks Indian food and goes to the theater to see local Marathi productions with her family.
Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi) oversees hearing after hearing, genially (and sometimes hair-raisingly) summarising witness statements for the court stenographer and chastising counsel and the police for their inability to produce a witness.
In this quietly incendiary script, Chaitanya Tamhane explores how the courtroom brings together people from all segments of society, subjecting them to the whims of a system that grinds exceedingly slowly. It’s the people that work this system — the police, the lawyers, the judges — that this film is really about, and how their strengths and frailties can have enormous consequences for those in the dock, or in the witness box.
This sense of realism and consequence is heightened by the use of non-professional actors; according to the production notes, only the two lawyers and the lead policeman were actors, with the rest of the cast filled out by local non-actors. This includes democratic rights activist Vira Sathidar, who portrays Kamble the protest singer with a balance of world-weariness and defiance, and music teacher Pradeep Joshi, as the judge who rather comes into his own at the end of the film.
Most saddening is the role of Usha Bane, the real-life widow of a manhole worker, who takes on the same role in the witness box in this film.
Deliberately paced and intelligently written, Court is a film of many parts: a quietly funny love letter to Mumbai, an incendiary social commentary, a byzantine court drama and a denunciation of police corrruption and persecution. It will stay with you for a while.