Court- A Film Review

Narayan Kamble in court

To someone who has never witnessed the proceedings of a trial, other than an exaggeratedly emotional Sunny Deol slamming his “dhai kilo ka haath” on a table in a courtroom, disgruntled by the repeated postponement of a hearing, screaming “Tareekh pe tareekh”, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is indeed a contrasting, realistic take on the “courtroom drama”.

Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a poor and ageing Dalit activist and poet, through his powerful lyrics has allegedly instigated a young sewage worker to commit suicide. Kamble is arrested on the charge of abetting the sewage worker’s suicide and is produced before the session’s court.

The manner, in which the trial unfolds, sans melodrama, makes the story factual and intriguing. Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), the defendant lawyer activist seems befuddled by the preposterousness of the case and the antiquated laws that have no relevance to the case anymore but is helplessly forced to abide by them. He holds back his vexation with a forced calmness in an attempt to help his client seek justice. But his demeanor: constantly slouching, speaking softly, and having very little to say at each court hearing conveys a sense of hopelessness, a lost faith in the judicial system.

The prosecution lawyer, Sharmila Pawar (Geetanjali Kulkarni) barrages Kamble with irrelevant questions. She minces Kamble’s words in an attempt to use them against him. A Maharashtrian, her English is heavily accented. Conscious of this, she breaks into her native tongue with ease, even with the judge. This seems to boost her confidence, a bravado that makes her believe she is going to win her case. She asks Kamble if he wrote a song that went along the lines of “Oh sewage workers, come give your lives to the gutters…” which he denies. He then says he has not “yet” written such a song, allowing Pawar to conclude that the accused has no qualms about writing something as slanderous, in the future, making her case stronger. Kamble seems nonchalant and unaffected by his arrest, contrary to what one would expect: outrage or hysteria. One begins to wonder how ruthless Sharmila Pawar can be, accusing an ailing old man of causing a death, even unwittingly. Is she human at all?

Outside the courtroom, Sharmila Pawar emerges as a hardworking lady who travels in a local train, a committed mother, managing her son’s homework, a wife, who cooks for her family after a hard day of work at the court, while her husband sits in front of the television, in a small three room flat in a Mumbai chawl, expecting to be served hot meals, inconsiderate to her career. Suddenly, your evolving anger towards lawyer Sharmila dissolves. You see the real person, with a heart.

Vinay Vora is lonely; he drives a swanky sedan listening to jazz after a long day at court. He enjoys the luxury of wine and an assortment of cheeses, as he lies in front of his Mac, listening to reviews on the Jaipur literature festival. He does enjoy his beer with a friend or two at a nightclub. His father owns a building. His mother worries about his loneliness. In one telling scene, he argues in Gujarati with his parents for not having time to visit them, for working even while eating lunch with them and for being questioned by his mother about his private life.

Tamhane’s ability to capture what would seem like very quotidian activities is what makes this movie appealing. A candid view of the lives of the central characters creates an element of curiosity. Pawar, the strong, pragmatic and unemotional lawyer goes back each day to a busy schedule, attending to her children, with no time for herself. This is a stark contrast to Vora heading back each day, to lonely hedonism.

The plight of the sewage worker’s wife glares at you. When asked to state her age at court, she discloses that she is unaware of her age: a detail of no significance to her. Gripped by poverty, she explains in a deadpan manner, how her husband had to work in inhuman conditions. The government never gave him any protective workwear and he had to rely on the presence of insects to enter a sewer; if the insects could survive, he could too.

The judge (Pradeep Joshi) is as a meek minion, whose thoughts are governed by superstition and tradition. He is more interested in blindly following norms rather than delivering justice; in one scene he refuses to carry out a hearing of a case as the accused is” dressed in a sleeveless top” which transgresses the “code of conduct”.

A dusty and dilapidated tenement contrasts the stylish, well appointed lawyer’s apartment, the oh so believable courtroom with its walls stained with betel juice, with tables stacked with files, most laden with dust, makes the setting believable. One can even see a lawyer falling asleep during the trial! Mrinal Desai’s cinematography adds to the portrayal of the characters.

A saddening, true depiction of the Indian judicial system brilliantly represented by a young 27 year old debutant director and effectively articulated by Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vivek Gomber and Vira Sathidar. For someone who does not know the actress Geetanjali Kulkarni, one can easily assume that Tamhane went through the ordeal of convincing a real lawyer to play Sharmila Pawar.

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