Court (2014): Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane's powerful social commentary oozing with tragicomic motifs

A multifaceted work of cinema extremely relevant to our times

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Court, Movie Poster, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane,
Court (2014) By Chaitanya Tamhane
Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.0
Genre: Drama
Cast: Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni
Country: India
Language: Marathi | Gujarati | English | Hindi
Runtime: 116 min
Color: Color

Summary: A sewerage worker's dead body is found inside a manhole in Mumbai. An aging folk singer is tried in court on charges of abetment of suicide. He is accused of performing an inflammatory song which might have incited the worker to commit the act. As the trial unfolds, the personal lives of the lawyers and the judge involved in the case are observed outside the court.

Court is a 2014 National Award-winning Indian indie film written and directed by debutant filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane. Chaitanya opts for a bunch of newcomers to play the pivotal characters in the movie: Vira Sathidar as the balladeer Narayan Kamble, Vivek Gomber as defense lawyer Vinay Vora, Geetanjali Kulkarni as public prosecutor Nutan, and Pradeep Joshi as Judge Sadavarte. Court is produced by Gombar with assistance from the Hubert Bals Fund of International Film Festival Rotterdam. The movie premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival in September 2014, where it won the Best Film award in the Horizons section while also bagging the Lion of the Future (Luigi De Laurentiis Award for a Debut Film) for young Chaitanya. While Chaitanya’s film prima facie come across as a courtroom drama, there are many ways to approach the film.

Vira Sathidar as the balladeer Narayan Kamble in Court, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Vira Sathidar as the balladeer Narayan Kamble in Court
First, as a character study about four distinct but brilliantly sketched out caricatures: those of an aging folk singer accused of abetment of suicide, an upper class Gujarati lawyer who represents him, a Marathi-speaking pedantic female public prosecutor, and a particularly conservative judge who presides over the hearing. These caricatures constitute a formidable quartet—a pivot around which everything else revolves. While the characters complement one other quite well, at the same time, they seem endowed with their own set of idiosyncrasies and contradictions which help breathe life into each one of them.

Narayan Kamble travels in a public bus, attends his cellphone, in Court, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
A Still from Chaitanya Tamhane's Court
Second, as a social commentary on the endless plight of the backward castes in modern India: the Dalits continue to face hardships despite everything that has been done to guard their rights and interests. The major cause of course is illiteracy. Even though a considerable chunk of seats is reserved in educational institutions for the scheduled castes and tribes, the fact of the matter is that the standard of primary education in our country continues to be below par. In Court, Chaitanya masterfully feeds us with the pitiful tale of a sewerage worker who, in the absence of any safety gear, has to rely on alcohol induced inebriation to overcome the stench of the gutter he is responsible to clean and maintain. 

Judge Sadavarte presides over the court's proceedings, in Court, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Judge Sadavarte presides over the court's proceedings
Third, as a critique on the Indian legal system: How lawmen tend to twist and manipulate simple and straightforward things, thereby making it nigh impossible for the layman to understand and interpret the law. How desperately dependent, judges and lawyers still are on the arcane/obsolete laws passed during the time of the British Empire (Kamble is arrested on the basis of the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876). How the common man suffers when these laws get wrongly or inappropriately interpreted by the judges while reaching their verdicts. How lost, oppressed and disoriented a layman feels while standing in the court of law that’s actually supposed to protect his interests. 

Vivek Gomber as defense lawyer Vinay Vora, in Court, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Vivek Gomber as defense lawyer Vinay Vora
Fourth, as a mockery of the immoral modus operandi the police often adopts in order to get the accused convicted in the court of law like fabricating evidence, presenting stock witnesses to influence the outcome of a case, or charging the accused under wrong sections of the IPC to ensure that the bail is not granted. How police acts as a mere puppet in the hands of the politicians/ruling party. In Court, we get to witness how Kamble becomes a soft target for the police. It is highly likely that the police was only following the orders of the state administration which must have felt intimidated by Kamble’s revolutionary ballads.

A police constable brings Narayan Kamble to the court, in Court, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
A police constable brings Narayan Kamble to the court
Fifth, as an exemplum of how a traditional art form can be used to inspire and awaken the masses from the deep slumber of ignorance and indifference or to incite the common man against the administration, thereby posing a threat to national integrity. It’s widely known that during the early days of the freedom struggle against the British, traditional folk theatre forms like 'Jatras' were extensively used to spread the message to the vast sections of the society. In Court, it’s Kamble’s Lok Shayari that performs a somewhat similar task of stirring up the masses against the omnipresent oppression, hypocrisy and prejudice. But the artist too mustn’t forget that when there’s widespread unrest and chaos, only a fine line separates critique from crime.

Geetanjali Kulkarni as public prosecutor Nutan, in Court, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Geetanjali Kulkarni as public prosecutor Nutan
It seldom happens in Indian cinema that a filmmaker chooses to make a multilingual film—a rare feat that Chaitanya accomplishes with Court wherein he employs as many as four different languages viz. English, Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati. Perhaps, it is an attempt to push it beyond the dimensions of a regional film; interestingly, the movie provides English subtitles even for those parts which are already spoken in English. While Court is primarily targeted towards the English-speaking audiences in both India and abroad, it carries a universal appeal as obvious from the 23 awards (including 4 wins at BAFICI 2015) that it has won at film festivals in both India and abroad.

Vinay Vora and Subodh visit the local slum, in Court, Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Advocate Vora visits the local slum
The harassment of the layman at the hands of lawmen is not uncommon even in the developed world. What happens to Kamble is far from being a one-off affair; anyone who has been to a Sessions Court can vouch for it. In India, the judges, like doctors, are hold in the same esteem as the God and yet they are far from being infallible. In Court, a conservative judge refuses to hear a woman’s case because she is wearing a sleeveless dress. Later on in the movie, the same judge (when out on a picnic with family and friends) is shown making exaggerated claims about the starting salaries of the IIM-A graduates. In another scene, he is advising a man to take numerological consultation for his sick son. And, in yet another, he is seen slapping a child after been rudely awakened by a bunch of naughty children.

Court (2014), Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
A Still from Chaitanya Tamhane's Court
What is Chaitanya trying to tell us? That an illiterate man like Kamble has more wisdom than a qualified judge. Or, that outside his position of authority, Judge Sadavarte is like any other man. Or, that a judge is a fallible human being, after all. At the end of the day, the viewer is the best judge. Chaitanya wants us see the different sides to his characters. He doesn’t want to spoon-feed us… Yes, he does feed us with all kinds of details, but, at the end of the day, he wants us to decide for ourselves. There is no black or white here, all gray! Kamble’s poetry is ripe with pungent criticism and he is hell-bent on shaking the very foundations of our faulty system. He doesn’t really care about the collateral damage as long as he succeeds in delivering his revolutionary message (he says in the court that he doesn't mind writing a song that would provoke the sewerage workers to commit suicide). With Kamble, there are no half measures—he is a kind of a double-edged sword that makes him both a hope as well as a threat to the society.

Vinay and Nutan Argue over Kamble's case, in Court (2014), Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Vinay and Nutan argue over Narayan Kamble's case
The defense lawyer Vinay and the public prosecutor Nutan too have different sides to them. While Vinay enjoys an upper class living often visiting pubs and discotheques with his elite friends, he seems to have a soft corner for slum dwellers and social activists like Kamble (perhaps, he has the intellect to see through the societal class barriers). At the same time, he shows little regard for his elderly parents; he is often rude to his parents who themselves are indifferent to his beliefs and the signs of a generation gap are pretty visible. Nutan, one the other hand, is indifferent to Kamble’s cause (perhaps, her middle class upbringing makes her incapable of understanding it) and embrace the antipathic sentiments of the middle class Maharashtrians towards the immigrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And yet she is a caring wife and a mother beyond the office hours. While her staccato orations in the court come across as quite irritating, her frivolous discussions with her colleagues about the life’s drudgeries are every bit as fascinating. 

Narayan Kamble performs on stage with his troupe, in Court (2014), Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Narayan Kamble performs on stage along with his troupe
Overall, Court is a multifaceted work of cinema that’s extremely relevant to our times. It is a commendable attempt on the part of a young and upcoming filmmaker like Chaitnaya Tamhane to come up with such a complex meshwork  of cinematic art at the very onset his career. Chaitnaya impeccably blends cerebral and emotional elements while never compromising on subtlety and detail to conjure up a powerful social commentary oozing with tragicomic motifs. In Court, Chaitnaya also succeeds in his attempt to recreate the Bombay (now Mumbai) of the ‘80s and ‘90s. However, the fading of the old and the emergence of the new (landscape as well as the values… when Vinay questions the regressive traditions of the Goyamari sect in the court, he is ambushed and beaten up in the open) is quite evident throughout the movie. The still camerawork (with camera often held at a distance), minimalist mise en scène, and the movie‘s deliberate pacing accentuates the slowness of the judicial process in India. The manner in which the songs are woven into the narrative reminded this critic of the films of the great Guru Dutt like Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool. Although, it’s not meant for casual viewing, Court has something to offer to everyone. The students of cinema most definitely need to study it. Court is a film that needs to be watched!

P.S. Court has been selected as India's official entry to the Oscars this year.

Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below . As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  


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  1. Stunning review. Movie in my wish list now!

  2. Glad you liked it... do share your thoughts once you have watched it! :-)


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