Star Cast: Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vira Sathidar,Pradeep Joshi, Usha Bane, Subodh Kushte
Director : Chaitanya Tamhane
A Dalit activist-poet is held ‘responsible’ for the ‘suicide’ of a sewage cleaner. ‘Court’ leads us through his arrest and ‘judicial remand’ and hearings, resulting in a film that is throbbing, urgent, vital, belying the sparse, near-documentarian manner of the telling.
Who is at fault? The frail activist with a hardy soul, the lawyers who fight for and against him, the judge who decides his fate? Or We The People, adept at breaking the rules and getting away with murder? Or, The System, where everything decent comes to die?
The story may have come from a small snippet that you would likely overlook in your daily paper, because, really, who is interested in the lives of such marginalised people as street performers and municipal employees? That is, if your newspaper (it would, of course, be of no interest to TV at all) is still the kind that would ‘cover’ such below-the-poverty-line incidents in the first place.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s strikingly assured debut treats this ‘incident’, rightfully, as an apocalypse. It holds up a mirror to us, mired in the kind of blind sloth that is far more dangerous and debilitating than the muck that surrounded the gutter-cleaner. It is a clarion call to us, who have stopped looking, observing, feeling. It confronts us with the realities we like to keep at bay, with such compelling skill that there is no looking away. ‘Court’ shows us where we are at in India today, and it is not pretty.
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It unfolds with deceptive simplicity. As it unravels, it keeps peeling back the layers and showing us more, piling up comments on the discriminations we bring to bear, based upon class and caste and communities and gender. Finally, it propels you the point where you have to ask : what is it that needs to give, for us—all of us– to breathe freely? Or are we all going to succumb to the noxious fumes leaking from that sewer?
I saw it a few months back at the Mumbai film festival, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The film loses nothing on a second viewing. You are riveted right from the opening, as Narayan Kamble (Sathidar, authentically worn and fiery) regales his audience with a rousing song, to when he is led away by the cops, to his weary plod through the twisted entrails of the judiciary.
As far as the public prosecutor (Kulkarni) is concerned, Kamble should be locked up and the key thrown away, because he is trouble: he has been arrested before on charges of ‘sedition’, she righteously declares, and who cares if no conclusive evidence was ever found. Kulkarni is terrific, as is the judge (Joshi) who is the imperturbable rock around which ripples form, and ‘cases’ flounder. The defence lawyer (Gomber, also the film’s producer, also very good) wades in when he can, skirts things when he has to: his footwork, as that of his colleagues, tells us how and why the wheels of justice grind so slow. Or not at all.
The acting is so naturalistic that it seems as they—the characters– were always there, part of the landscape, when the camera showed up. Actually, there is deliberation in each placement. Tamhane wants you to see, really see, and feel each razor-sharp punch.
There have been several films which have dwelt on the agony caused to regular folks by callous lawyers and the unfeeling legal system (Saeed Mirza’s 1984 ‘Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho’ is a fine example). Many popular actors have hammed their way through a zillion court rooms: ‘order order’ has been a stock phrase in Hindi cinema, as has ‘mi’lord’ and ‘mere kaabil dost’ and ‘mere muwakkil’. And who can forget Sunny Deol’s ‘dhai kilo ka haath’, as he fights to save the honour of a helpless woman?
Tamhane’s film junks melodrama, and is all the more powerful for it. Just a tiny niggle: there are times it feels like it is opening too many fronts and you start feeling the weight, but the film moves on before it gets too heavy. The rest is subtle and hard-hitting, and your jugular is where it aims, unerringly.
‘Court’ is a searing, unmissable film, and is one of the best you will see this year . If you feel any other way, well, go ahead, sue me.