Court | Chaitanya Tamhane | India | 2014 | 116 minutes
A man is caught in the middle as rational logic and social prejudices clash in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. James Kreul looks at India’s Academy Award submission, which provides keen-eyed deadpan commentary on India’s criminal justice system.
Regular Madison Film Forum readers know that I try my best to call attention to films from India’s popular cinemas—Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood—that comes to Madison’s commercial theaters. As hard as it can be to keep up on Indian popular cinemas, it is even harder to keep up on Indian cinema outside its mainstream studio productions.
Case in point: I had not heard of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court when I started researching for the Missed Madison Film Festival. It was India’s submission for this year’s Academy Awards (we know today that it was not nominated), and its current Tomatometer rating at Rotten Tomatoes is 100%. It seemed like something that someone interested in Indian cinema should take a look at.
Court belongs to the tradition of the “parallel cinema” in India (existing along side of Bollywood), which often looks at socio-political issues and has its roots in the films of Satyajit Ray and the National Film Development Corporation of India. But being outside of the global juggernaut of Bollywood, films like Court rarely make an impact beyond the international film festival circuit, let alone secure screenings in Madison’s commercial theaters. Court was in fact financed in part by a production fund from the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.
Unlike the boisterous style of Bollywood, Court is extremely reserved, at times even minimalist. Most scenes feature long takes with cameras distant from the action, and camera movement is limited to small adjustments to follow character movement. The narrative is elliptical, fragmented, and tangental. We follow a criminal complaint, but in addition to the court proceedings we occasionally follow the primary participants—the accused, the defense lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge—during life events that have no direct bearing on the case.
Poet and singer Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) is arrested in the middle of a public performance, and is charged with abetting a man’s suicide. According to a police report, two days after a recent performance of song about suicide, a man in the nearby neighborhood allegedly committed suicide. The details of the case are absurd, even more absurd than the infamous Judas Priest subliminal message suicide case in America, but the case is pursued as mandated by the laws on the books.
Unfortunately some of the laws cited against Kamble, which the prosecutor uses to present him as a dangerous subversive, date back to the 1800s; they contain a pretty broad definition of sedition which at the time benefited colonial British rule. Despite an invalid search warrant, police find books on Kamble’s shelf that violate similarly old book bans and laws that forbid offending religious and ethnic groups. Kamble’s lawyer presents 21st century objections to these laws, but those objections tend to fall on deaf ears.
By showing us bits and pieces of Kamble’s court proceedings, Court juxtaposes the purported rationality of the justice system with the biases and prejudices of almost everyone involved. Some decisions seem arbitrary. Others decisions adhere to rules but ones that are enforced arbitrarily. The judge will not hear a woman’s case because she comes to court wearing a sleeveless dress. That’s still on the books from ages ago, but the decision to enforce it reflects very contemporary prejudices.
It’s hard to track all of the tensions in the film in part due to a mix of languages—Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, and English. One begins to understand some of the regional tensions during a Marathi stage melodrama, attended by the defense lawyer, in which the protagonist complains about northerners stealing all the jobs (the script could have been translated from a American Tea Party rally). The defense lawyer is particularly attuned to how languages are used by the prosecutor. But he’s not equally attuned to how his modern attitudes will be interpreted by those in the courtroom. The deadpan presentation of these details make their consequences more alarming when you put the pieces together.
What is most alarming is what remains off the screen, something we become keenly aware aware of as time passes: Kamble spends most of the story time of the film in jail, and he hasn’t been found guilty of anything.
The impact of Court sneaks up on you. The viewing experience at first seems underwhelming, but it’s hard not to think about the consequences of what we’ve seen when the film is over.
Check out other Missed Madison Film Festival reviews posted throughout the day:
Erik Oliver on Victoria and Jake Smith on Kilo Two Bravo here at Madison Film Forum.
Grant Phipps on Rocks in My Pockets at LakeFrontRow.
James LaPierre on Entertainment at WUD Film Presents.
Four Star Video Podcast discusses Human Capital.