24 April 2015

Extra-legal understanding

My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday: 

Chaitanya Tamhane's debut film Court is a devastating, elegant indictment of our collective present.

If you're a Hindi film viewer, you've been watching the lives of heroes unspool in courtrooms forever. One of my earliest cinematic memories is of Awara, whose high melodrama involves pitting the judge (Prithviraj Kapoor, also the father) against the accused (Raj Kapoor, also the son), with the daughter/lover (Nargis) mediating between them as lawyer. Awara used the court as real and metaphorical stage for a debate that went beyond a particular crime to the social pressures that create "criminals". Basu Chatterjee's Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, a remake of Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men, couldn't be more different in tone, but its interest in tracking a jury's arguments is, like Awara's, concerned with how the social impinges on the legal. ERHF may seem gritty compared to Awara, but Chatterjee's realism clearly didn't stretch very far: jury trials were abolished in India soon after 1959's Nanavati trial, so a 1986 film about one undercuts the plot's very premise.

But then real-life courtrooms have never had much impact on Hindi movie ones. Hundreds of films, with their "mere kaabil dost" and "kanoon jazbaat nahi, saboot dekhta hai", have wrung eloquent oratory and dramatic suspense out of the dry deliberations and incessant waiting that make up the everyday reality of the Indian courtroom. Of course, there are exceptions; I can think of two recent films that have captured the farcicality of the legal process. Feroz Abbas Khan's slightly dated but pitch-black satire Dekh Tamasha Dekh (2014) showed an investigation into whether a poor man killed in an accident was Hindu or Muslim, having the court deliberate, among other things, on the existence of a river. Subhash Gupta's Jolly LLB (2013) took a smalltime lawyer's big ambitions as the basis for a funny but deep-down cynical take on how the law really works.

Chaitanya Tamhane's superb debut, Court, shares something with the films I've just mentioned. Like them, it is cinematically invested in the theatre of the courtroom, as well as with how the social cannot be divorced from the legal in practice. And yet Court is unlike any other film you've seen - or are ever likely to see. The case Tamhane takes as his take-off point is certainly the stuff of farce: a lok shahir, a folk singer called Narayan Kamble, is charged with abetment to suicide because the police decide that a sewage worker who died on the job was actually following an exhortation made in a song written and sung by the accused. But Tamhane's genius lies in taking the ridiculous and treating it seriously, so that what creeps up on you is much more powerful than if it were farce. Nothing is exaggerated to elicit a reaction. Nothing is played for laughs. So calm, unhurried and deliberate is Tamhane's embrace of his location and his characters that one is persuaded, right from beginning to end, that what one is watching is real.

But - and I cannot stress this enough - Court is no documentary. What Tamhane has done is to assemble a team experienced in documentary - editor Rikhav Desai, cinematographer Mrinal Desai, sound designer Anita Kushwaha - and put their clearly immense talent to use in the service of an immaculately-crafted fiction. Right from the start, when we see Kamble (played by real-life social activist Vira Sathidar) emerge from a tuition class he teaches, walk across a courtyard, catch a bus and arrive at the "Wadgaon Massacre Cultural Protest Meet" to perform his songs, the film combines the wide-angled observational approach of documentary with the unwavering narrative focus of fiction. Visually, too, this is true. These initial scenes, like those in the courtroom later, are clearly informed by a sense of the city as live theatre, but even in the widest of shots, and sometimes at a great distance, the camera picks out the sprightly old man in his grey beard and peach kurta.

The Dalit shahir's songs are sharply critical of the political and economic milieu, but while letting us hear some wonderful lines involving large malls and our "Great Fall", Tamhane's film refuses to ride piggyback on this causticity. Its chosen tone is more deceptively gentle. Understanding what happens in the courtroom involves following its principal protagonists outside of it. So we follow Kamble's defence lawyer Vinay Vora to the fancy supermarket in which he does his solitary shopping, and the prosecution lawyer Nutan home on the local train discussing the unaffordability of olive oil. And so on.

These journeys may seem random, but they aren't. Taken together, they constitute Court's astute intervention in that age-old debate about how the law relates to the socio-cultural world within which it is practiced. And here Tamhane reveals a finely-honed sense of both the tragic and the absurd, delivered without comment. The well-off Vora can't speak to a child in a poor, working class area without "Excuse me" and "Thank you". When he suffers public humiliation, we see him weep; but almost immediately after, getting a facial. The judge who refused to hear the case of one poor Mercy Fernandes, because she wore "sleeveless" to court, takes his vacation in a family resort where everyone descends fully clothed into the swimming pool. The widow of the sanitation worker who went unprotected into manholes encounters a safety belt for the first time in Vora's car. Long after the film ends, you will think about how these worlds, kept so starkly apart by barriers of class, language and prejudice, cannot but stare uncomprehendingly at each other when they collide in the courtroom.

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