'Court' is an understated masterpiece that excoriates our broken justice system, says Ajachi Chakrabarti.
Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Starring: Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Pradeep Joshi, Usha Bane
The best moment in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court comes during the denouement. Judge Sadavarte (Joshi) is sleeping on a bench one afternoon during a vacation to a beach resort with the extended Sadavarte clan. His nephews and nieces, for want of better entertainment, decide to creep up to him and scream. They run away as he angrily wakes up, but one boy—mute, probably autistic—is too slow and gets slapped. It’s a splendid metaphor for the broken justice system Sadavarte represents throughout the movie, one that allows a vindictive state to trap its dissidents in bureaucratic hells.
Consider the case of State v. Narayan Kamble, over which Sadavarte presides. A 65-year-old minstrel who performs radical folk songs among the poor, Kamble (Sathidar) is arrested under Section 306 of the IPC—abetment of suicide. It seems he sang a song exhorting sewerage workers to commit suicide to protest the caste system, and one of them did just that. Despite there being little evidence that the death was suicide and not an accident, or that Kamble had even written, let alone performed, such a song, he is denied bail and forced to remain behind bars, his health deteriorating as the case trudges forward, tareeq by tareeq, over the better part of a year. The prosecution’s case is wafer-thin, but the proceedings seem to operate under a presumption of guilt. For his part, Kamble denies ever composing such a song, but doesn’t rule out the possibility of him writing one in the future, which seems to count against him.
The film moves at a langurous pace, mirroring that of the judiciary. In most films featuring a trial, it seems as if the case in question is the centre of the universe; here, Kamble’s trial is intentionally shown to be what it really is—one of the over three crore cases pending before the Indian judiciary, being heard one at a time, for minutes at a time—with courtroom scenes extending before and after the hearings of Kamble. This allows for satire, such as a Goan petitioner being denied a hearing because she’s wearing a bright, sleeveless top, but it also makes the audience think about how easy it would be to slip through the cracks of such a system, about the implicit horrors in being falsely accused of a crime in the world’s largest democracy. Eighty percent of India’s prison population, after all, consists of undertrials. Tamhane doesn’t have to unnecessarily sentimentalise Kamble’s story, finds no need to drag in a frantic wife or desperate children: the state’s lack of concern for whatever effects this long, unnecessary incarceration might have on Kamble is driven home through the sheer absurdity of the very realistic proceedings.
Using long uncut scenes recorded with a fixed camera, it makes for compelling cinema. Realistically depicting the lower judiciary rather than perpetuating the fiction of the responsible, responsive andhaa kaanoon is a narrative strategy that Bollywood has been coming around to in recent years—Shahid and Jolly LLB, both honoured at the National Film Awards, come to mind. The first, Hansal Mehta’s biopic on human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi, demonstrated the Kafkaesque farces terror trials are in this country, the leaps of logic and outright fictions prosecutors feed obliging judges, and the delaying tactics they employ if those fail. Given Ujjwal Nikam’s shameful lies about Ajmal Kasab’s demands for chicken biriyani, or the flimsy evidence used to hang Afzal Guru, the pettiness portrayed in Shahid feels almost tame by comparison. Similarly, when the prosecutor in Court absurdly uses the definition of “unlawful activities” to brand Kamble a terrorist—so what if he doesn’t use bombs or dynamite, the definition leaves open “any other means”—you know this isn’t simply the film’s dark humour at work, that such proceedings probably happen in courtrooms every day.
The “probably” is important, though. Most of us, couched in privilege, will never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone suffer Kamble’s fate of the agonisingly endless wait for justice. We’re not the ones who will be rounded up by the police every time a crime is committed and a scapegoat must be found. We won’t be the ones falsely accused of being Maoists or terrorists, beaten or raped until we agree. Even if we do commit a crime, we will possess the resources to buy the best legal aid, who’ll probably even manage to keep us out of jail until we’ve been given a fair trial. We wouldn’t have to choose between having our day in court and earning our daily bread.
Court‘s triumph lies not just in pointing fingers at the justice system, but in its biting social commentary on caste and class privilege. It does this by following the two lawyers fighting the case out of the courtroom and into their living rooms. The prosecutor, played by Geetanjali Kulkarni, is a working woman, who has to take the local train both ways, keep up with her casework while cooking and cleaning for a family of four. To her, Narayan Kamble is just another criminal to put away, one more jholawala agitator threatening the unity and integrity of this glorious country. She’s concerned more about inflation and her family’s health rather than any miscarriage of justice she might be perpetrating; she just hopes the case would end and she wouldn’t have to look at the same boring faces again.
Vinay Vora, the defense lawyer played by Vivek Gomber—also the film’s producer—isn’t prone to the histrionics of the crusading lawyers of cinema and television. He doesn’t rant about the procedural delays, doesn’t pick fights with the arresting officer, meekly accepts every new court date that is handed to him. (All he asks is that the proceedings take place in either Hindi or English, so that he can understand too, but even Kamble himself is more comfortable in Marathi.) He likely knows that playing to the galleries won’t help his cause, has probably seen firsthand the consequences of alienating the judge in a fit of moral self-righteousness. But it’s also because personally, he has little at stake in the trial’s outcome. A member of our globalised elite, shopping in supermarkets for wine and cheese, hanging out in bars listening to women sing songs they picked up while holidaying in Brazil, Vora can afford to tilt at windmills, to wait for justice to take its own time. Kamble isn’t just a statistic to him, but it’s not as if he’s losing any sleep over his fate. He can look at life-and-death matters with the passion, as well as the detachment, of the professional hobbyist.
As for Kamble, prison doesn’t change him, doesn’t douse his revolutionary spirit. He emerges defiant as ever, writing books and performing songs and waiting for the police to arrest him again and restart this familiar farce. It’s what he signed up for when he decided to devote his life to political dissent, to stand up for the poorest of the poor against the might of the state. All he asks is that you stop calling him an artist. After all, he sings, the wailing of a dying man is not art.