Impressive, socially conscious debut from Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane
The trial of 65-year-old people’s poet Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), accused of instigating a sewage worker to commit suicide through his inflammatory song lyrics, becomes a window into the damning dichotomy of modern India; a country where the wealthy elite are becoming globally influential, but social traditions have a stranglehold on ambition and opportunity.
While Narayan’s fate may be the impetus of the narrative, he is not its focus. After his tour de force performance at the opening of the film, during which he is arrested, we see little of him. Instead, the story is concerned with the outdated workings of a legal machine that serves no purpose other than to sustain the country’s caste system. This democratic impotency is obvious as Narayan’s lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) points out the ludicrousness of the case to an indifferent judge (Pradeep Joshi), while prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) relies on the letter of ancient laws and coached witnesses to prove Narayan’s guilt.
If such an archaic system might seem an easy target for a modern filmmaker, Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut runs far deeper. He spends as much time out of the courtroom as in, personal revelations about individual players further denouncing the overall situation. Vora, for example, lives with his middle class parents, frequenting fashionable bars and shopping in expensive stores; he has, it is implied, the education and connections to carve out a high-flying career but instead uses such social freedom to be a public defender, albeit one unable to effect any change.
Nutan does not have such luxury of choice. Outside of the court she is a wife and mother carving out an existence at the lower end of society. Her profession, however, puts her on a higher rung than those she prosecutes and, while she may be well educated in terms of the law, her ingrained lack of empathy or compassion is reflected in the emotionless militancy she brings to trial. Just like Vora, and even Narayan himself, she is simply a cog in this societal machine, moving unthinkingly, as has always been dictated.
Winner of awards at the 2014 Venice Film Festival and a more widespread darling of the festival circuit, Court is a masterful piece of social cinema that rewards audience investment and marks Tamhane out as a filmmaker to watch.
Limited release from Fri 25 Mar.