By Ashwani Dabadge

Every year there is a wave of independent films that make a splash in critics’ circuits and at international film festivals, but only a few manage to make it to a commercial release. It is a formidable achievement on the part of the makers and the financiers of the film to bring it to the people it is based on.

As the multiple-award winning film Court completes one year since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, it is time to look back on what won it the highest Indian honour for feature films – Best Feature Film at the National Awards.

The Plot

Narayan Kamble, a lokashaheer (activist poet and folk singer), is charged with the abetment of the suicide of a sewer worker. This alleged abetment comprises of ‘inflammatory’ songs that Kamble sings about the deplorable condition of sewer workers, amongst other social issues.

The trial forms a major part of the film, and this columnist believes it succeeds in bringing to the screen the ground realities of the lower courts. However, after a few scenes into the movie we realise that the courtroom setting is a gateway to other important questions raised by the film.

Oh, the Humanity

What makes this film more than merely a realistic portrayal of the Indian judicial system is the humanity it imbues its characters with – each important character, including the seemingly infallible judge, is subject to deep-seated prejudices.

On one hand, the film exposes inefficiencies behind drawn-out court cases and an interpretation of the law which is true to the letter but not to the spirit. On the other, it unravels and explores the motivations, hopes, and fears of the people, and the tedium of their daily jobs. The film is equally interested in both what happens outside the courtroom and what happens within it.

The three main characters the film chooses to focus on are Kamble’s defence lawyer, the public prosecutor, and the presiding judge. While the court-scenes are top-notch, there are also thoughtful scenes where the film delves into the characters’ personal lives, often painting a picture counter-intuitive picture to the impression they make in their workplace.

The defence lawyer is seen enjoying an active nightlife, shopping for alcohol, and paying frequent visits to the salon – things which hint at his privileged background, but could be considered improper for a socially aware lawyer who provides legal help to the disadvantaged and engages in legal activism. His tough and powerful arguments, ridiculing various absurdities – such as antiquated laws dating to the 19th century – are deftly presented alongside a scene in which he breaks down, sobbing with his back to the camera. One wonders whether this points to the notion of sentimentality’s apparent incompatibility with masculinity.

The director’s keen lens is similarly cast on the gender divide in society through a seemingly harmless yet extremely insightful scene which shows men and women from the same family sitting apart and talking about two different sets of topics.

One can see the tedious monotony that has crept into her daily life when we see the public prosecutor go about her daily chores, or chat nonchalantly with her colleagues about handing out a prison sentence to Kamble and being done with the case.

‘Organic Social Commentaries

The film subtly covers a range of issues in its two-hour runtime. These issues aren’t deliberately inserted in the narrative to score extra brownie points or to flaunt the label of social consciousness. They are an organic part of the narrative and help the viewer understand the characters’ motivations.

The social and economic backgrounds of the characters are expertly contrasted with one another, especially those of the two lawyers. Caste divides are silently commented upon as well – the testimony of thedeceased sewer worker’s wife shows how many people from backward castes have to undertake dangerous work just to feed their families. One also sees how linguistic backgrounds are both connecting factors and barriers. The public prosecutor shares a language (Marathi) with the judge, which perhaps gives her leeway with her lax arguments. Kamble’s lawyer, on the other hand, possibly because of his crisp English and ignorance of Marathi, has to work harder to find his feet, make himself understood and follow the interrogation of witnesses.

Subtle Humour

The greatest strength of the film, which is a credit to Tamhane’s observational acumen, is the subtle humour that underlines it throughout. Small but important details include lawyers hunting for clients outside the court, like roadside sellers who sell their wares to passers-by; the sessions-court judge peppering her dictation of court proceedings with casual instructions to her typist to exclude superfluous sentences; or the men who inadvertently interrupt a lecture by bringing in a fan and fumble around to find a place for it.

These seemingly insignificant details not only lend credibility to the film but also allow the viewer to maintain a position of relative objectivity, like a CCTV camera on a wall. This is helped by lengthy takes, where the camera stays still for a long period of time or follows the characters around instead of cutting to another angle, establishing the setting before the characters enter the frame, and the rolling of the camera long after a scene has ended.

A Convincing Picture of Reality

For years, courts have been depicted as hallowed halls in which lawyers sermonise and deliver eloquent speeches, spectators break into sporadic applause like audiences at political rallies, and judges listen mutely to powerful pleas of justice. Court is a film which gives us a more convincing picture of reality, and, as expected, it is a far cry from regular cinematic fare.

Intelligent, funny, and insightful, Court deserves its National Award.

(The film has been written and directed by Chaitanya Tamhane and is the filmmaker’s debut film.)

The author is a Research Associate at Prayas Energy Group, a liberal with an education in Economics and a film buff at heart.

Posted by The Indian Economist