Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, which releases today, takes a critical look at the judicial system through the lives of the people in the courtroom. As an ageing folk singer is tried in a Sessions court on charges of abetment of suicide, the film draws out each character unhurriedly: from the judge, to the public prosecutor, the defence lawyer and the convict.
Geetanjali Kulkarni, the actor who plays the public prosecutor, explains why it was important for all the actors to be on the same wave length. “For instance, my character and that of the judge have been attending the same Sessions Court for years. So my character has a comfort level with the judge, which you will be able to see. In order to get the nuances and the tone of the film correct, all of us had to be on the same page. Anything extra would have been jarring,” says the 41-year-old actor, who is no stranger to the intricacies of acting. A force to reckon within the theatre circuit, she has famously played both a man and woman in the acclaimed play Piya Behrupiya (2012) and an elephant in Gajab Kahani (2012). Court is Kulkarni’s biggest film outing but her favourite medium remains the stage as it suits her temperament. “I am too slow for films, where you need to prove yourself in one audition. I need time to discover a character,” she explains.
For the kind of performance it extracts from its actors, and the issues it addresses, Court has been awarded at every major film festival. The multilingual film — Marathi, English, Gujarati and Hindi— had its crowning glory at the Venice Film Festival last September where it won the Best Feature film, a feat it repeated at this year’s National Film Awards.
None of it would have been possible without Vivek Gomber, the producer of the film who also plays the defence lawyer. Gomber’s journey can be divided into two phases — he came to Mumbai in 2004 doing the usual rounds of the auditions without much success. But he did a number of plays including one called Grey Elephants in Denmark, directed by Tamhane. When his father, a CEO of a Dubai-based real estate company, was diagnosed with cancer, he left everything in Mumbai and went to Singapore to be by his family. Gomber took on Court — when the script, by his old aide and friend Tamhane, was in the first stage — even when he wasn’t confirmed as an actor.
“This time around, when I returned to Mumbai, I wanted to go beyond just auditioning for an acting role. I was ready to collaborate on a project that I could be proud of and fight for,” he says.
Gomber did what few traditional producers dare to do — put his trust on a writer, give him an assured monthly pay and ample time to develop the script. “I told Chaitanya to do whatever it takes for his research, interview people in different cities and all the costs will be covered,” says the 36-year-old, who studied theatre in Boston for five years.
In order to get into the skin of the defence lawyer Vinay Vora, Gomber visited courts in Mumbai, watched Gujarati theatre and had random conversations with elderly members from the community to get a sense of the finer aspects of the language.
Kulkarni, on the other hand, turned back the pages of her own life to play Nutan. She is a married middle-class Maharashtrian public prosecutor, who travels from her Virar home to the Sessions Court everyday and enjoys her share of right-wing Marathi plays with her family on a Sunday. “I have seen that kind of mentality. I, too, have been influenced by rightist people early in my life but it changed when I read Marx and Adam Smith. Then going to the National School of Drama made me much more liberal,” she says.