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A Case of Reality: Director Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film is a realistic portrayal of a courtroom

Director Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut feature film Court, which premieres at the Venice Film Festival is a realistic portrayal of a courtroom.

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | New Delhi | Updated: August 5, 2014 2:01:53 pm
A still from Court. A still from Court.

In cinema, the courtroom makes for a dramatic setting and the characters that populate it are more often than not stereotypes. The judge is always an imposing figure who has the final authority and the lawyers are always articulate. What if the attorneys aren’t good orators? What does the judge do once he takes off the judicial robe and heads home? These are some of the questions that led Chaitanya Tamhane to make his first feature film, Court, that strips a courtroom of all its drama.

“In movies, we see a condensed version of court proceedings. I became fascinated with the idea of a realistic courtroom drama —  from technical passages read aloud in a monotonous voice to the chaos in a courtroom,” says Tamhane. Going against the norm of having a courtroom scene set in the High Court or Supreme Court, his film is set in a lower trial court. Court has received the Hubert Bals fund from Rotterdam Film Festival, a prestigious but small sum, and, on September 4, it will have its World Premiere at the 71st Venice Film Festival. The movie has been selected as part of the Horizons section, which honours new trends in world cinema.

In Court, all the drama takes place outside the courtroom. “While doing my research and interviewing lawyers and activists, I realised that somewhere their cultural milieu and personal values affect the way justice is served. To find out who these people are outside the courtroom was fascinating,” says the 27-year-old. The director finds settings more intriguing than the characters. For instance, his play, Grey Elephants in Denmark, explores the “world of close-up magicians and mentalists”. His short film Six Strands was set “in the Darjeeling tea industry.”

Characterised by long takes, the film gives an insight into the day-to-day lives of people who work in a courtroom. Binding these strands together is an ongoing trial, where an ageing folk singer is tried on charges of abetment to suicide of a sewerage worker, whose body is found in a manhole in Mumbai. Inspired by the imprisonment of cultural activist Jeeten Marandi, the folk singer is accused of performing an inflammatory song that could have incited the man to kill himself.

Recreating the courtroom was an elaborate effort. As photography is prohibited, the film’s production designers spent hours inside courts taking detailed notes about them. “Ageing was an important aspect of the movie. Since a case goes on for a long period of time, it was important to convey this transition through visual cues. For example, we shot photographs of walls with cracks. These were then used as reference images to make the courtroom look older,” says Pooja Talreja who, with Somnath Pal, is the  production designer of the film.

The film has a cast of non-professional actors and besides the courtroom set, the rest of it was shot at various locations across Mumbai.

“Mumbai is a key element in the film. The characters are from different backgrounds,” says Tamhane about his multilingual film where the characters, like in the city, speak in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and English.

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