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Courting magic on screen

Chaitanya Tamhane has struck gold with his debut film, Court, that won awards at the Venice Film Festival.

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Mumbai | Updated: October 31, 2014 6:01 pm
Court explores the functioning of the  Indian judicial  system. ‘Court’ explores the functioning of the Indian judicial system.

Winning the Best Film award in the Orizzonti or Horizons category and Lion of the Future at the 71st Venice Film Festival for your debut film must be hugely satisfying.

I personally don’t approve of the idea of competition when it comes to cinema, but it’s a great boost for the film. The win was a surprise given it was competing with films of filmmakers I admire, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hong Sang-soo and Veronika Franz. Memento Films, one of the best international sales agents of arthouse films, picked up Court. They are planning its festival strategy. We will travel to International Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, Kyiv International Film Festival, Ukraine, and BFI London. We are excited to see how it plays out in the international competition section of the Mumbai Film Festival as it is the first time we will present it to an Indian audience.

What was the trigger behind Court?

It started with my desire to explore the judiciary, underground cultural movements such as Kabir Kala Manch, and how bureaucracy works. While researching, so many different layers, perspectives came to the fore. For example, how the cultural backgrounds of judges, lawyers influence their interpretation of the law. I wanted to subvert a courtroom drama.

How did you get into filmmaking?

I took admission in Mithibai College for graduation as it has a vibrant theatre culture. My world then was limited to relatively offbeat Hindi films like that of Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam as well as plays of Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar. I was 18 when I was working in Balaji Telefilms, writing for their serial Kya Hoga Nimmo Ka. It was a well-paying job, and there were these serious theatre people from National School of Drama working there. Some of them introduced me to world cinema and it was a life-altering experience. It’s then that I wanted to write. Since I did not want anybody to direct my scripts, I got into direction.

You did not attend a film school or assist any filmmaker. How did you learn the craft?

I was too busy doing my own thing. I am a voracious reader of filmmaking books. You learn the rest of the craft on the field. Meeting playwright Ramu Ramanathan changed my life; he made me socially and politically aware at a young age. I met filmmaker Anand Gandhi while working for UTV Palador and was introduced to a lot of new concepts. I learnt everything on the job while making Court.

You are a practising magician too.

I’ve been training for seven years in close-up magic and mentalism. I got interested in them while watching a DVD of David Copperfield. I wrote and directed a play, Grey Elephants in Denmark, which is about a close-up magician who becomes a mentalist. The play is also a reflection of the state of performing arts in India. I could also see the link between magic and cinema, and how in both these worlds you have to convince the audience that an illusion is real.

Tell us about the other projects you have undertaken.

By the time I quit Balaji, I didn’t want to work under anyone or a big set-up. I, along with two friends, made a documentary called Four Step Plan, on plagiarism in Indian cinema. For my next project, the setting of a tea-tasting in Darjeeling excited me. There are so many exotic stories about the process, how the leaves are plucked on full moon nights and rolled on the thighs of a virgin. The short film Six Strands started with these myths.  As I did my research, it went beneath the surface to explore the workers’ exploitation.
sankhayan.ghosh@expressindia.com

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