Friday, August 26, 2016

Court, directed by Chaitanya Tamhane

India (Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, English), 2014
116 min, drama, satire, realist
Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Starring Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, and Pradeep Joshi

An elderly folk singer is arrested for political reasons. What follows is an intimate look at the Indian legal system from the perspective of the three main participants: the defending attorney, the prosecutor, and the judge.

This film won Best Feature Film in the Indian National Film Awards and was India’s official entry for the Academy Awards.

Not a “Courtroom Drama”

I was rather disappointed when I first saw this film, and I think the main reason was its advertising as a “courtroom drama.” I was expecting it to be similar to great “courtroom drama” films like 12 Angry Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. But it isn’t like that at all.

The main focus of this film isn’t really on the accused’s supposed crime, or on the argument that his lawyer uses to defend him. The case is just an excuse. The real focus is on the place – the court – itself: how it works, the relationships between the people who work there, how cases are handled. The lives of the attorneys and the judge outside of the courtroom. This is a different angle altogether from the courtroom dramas I was used to, which involve argumentation and detailed analyses of the crime.

The director uses long shots of court proceedings to demonstrate how this folk singer’s case is just one in a long line of cases that come before the judge on any given day. It’s like a machine: one after another the defendants are presented, the attorneys make their cases, and the judge pronounces judgement. Or, more likely, gives a date for the parties to return to the court to present further evidence. The film follows the same court case over months as the defendant comes into and goes out of and comes into jail again. The defendants are brought in, chewed up, and spit out by the legal system.

In the main court case, it is obvious that the charges are fraudulent and politically motivated. And yet he is kept in jail for months as the prosecutor fails to produce witnesses and the court dates are rescheduled again and again, despite his age and poor health.

Personal stories

The director’s focus on the personal backgrounds of the attorneys and the judge is unique. Through these glimpses into their lives, we see the inequalities between them and between them and the people whose lives are in their hands.

The defending attorney is relatively wealthy. He speaks fluent English and apparently has taken this case on a pro bono basis because of the human rights implications. However, he is also quite lonely. We see him fall asleep drinking wine and watching the news on his Macbook, alone in his posh apartment. And his relationship with his parents is cold: the keep bothering him about marriage and use his legal knowledge for their own projects. On the other hand, it seems that he does go out on dates occasionally, or just to the cafes with friends.

The prosecutor is a woman, and that shapes a lot of what she experiences. After work, her life revolves around "womanly" tasks. On the train home, she bonds with another female passenger over saris and cooking before picking up her son at school. Then she has to cook dinner and feed her husband and children while they watch TV.  Finally, after everyone else has gone to bed, she has time to look through court documents and prepare her cases.

As a public prosecutor, she is also paid far less than the defense attorney. This much is evident from a comparison between his posh apartment and her older, stolidly middle-class home, as well as the kinds of restaurants each frequents. The gendered and economic disparities are apparent.

Finally, it turns out that the judge is a bit of a quack in his private life. He apparently thinks every health problem can be fixed through numerology or fortune telling, or various other kinds of alternative medicine.

All three of these characters are significantly better off financially than the accused or the witnesses, all of whom live in a slum. The man who is supposed to have committed suicide was a sewer cleaner, one of the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in India. His wife, it turns out, doesn't even know how old she is. It says something about the system that these three well-educated, financially well-off people hold the lives of poor people in their hands. From the way the story is told, it seems that the defendant does not really matter, as long as the lawyers and judge do their job. What a brilliantly understated but piercing satire of the legal system, both in India and in general.

As a film

If you are a fan of slow movies filled with long, lingering shots you will probably think this film is the best thing since sliced bread. Personally, I do not enjoy this kind of filmmaking. While I enjoyed the satire and the scathing critique of the Indian justice system, I had trouble enjoying the film itself. That being said, I still recommend it for anyone interested in these issues.

Further Reading:

"'Law Is Not Set In Stone, It Has To Be Interpreted': An Interview With Court Director Chaitanya Tamhane" by Manik Sharma (Caravan Magazine)
"[Interview with] Chaitanya Tamhane" by Liza Béar (BOMB Magazine) 

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