There is a moment in “Court,” past the halfway point, where we see a lawyer out to lunch with his family. Moments after stepping outside the restaurant, two men walk up behind the lawyer, grab him, and beat him. “How dare you insult the Goymari Sect!” screams one of the men. The beating was the result of a remark spoken by the lawyer in a courtroom, presumably earlier that day, where he was simply defending his client for owning a book which criticized the Goymari people and which has also been banned in India for over 110 years. “Court,” a courtroom drama set in Mumbai, India, is a quietly scathing critique of a government that’s so deeply steeped and entrenched in tradition that its people today can still be imprisoned thanks to laws that are wildly outdated. As the scene mentioned above demonstrates, however, the Indian government is not alone when it comes to implementing outdated laws, tactics, and punishments. Several of these long-standing traditions are held near and dear to the Indian people as well, resulting in the savage beating of a man who’s just trying to do his job.
The defense lawyer’s client, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), is a folk singer and social activist. When the movie opens, Kamble gets arrested after a live performance. He’s accused of singing a song that incited the suicide of a sewage worker, the consequences of which could land Narayan in prison for twenty years. He, along with his lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), go through a lengthy process of court hearings in order to successfully fight the charges. And during each court session, the public prosecutor brings in stock witnesses to help support her case against the folk singer and constantly brings up outdated laws that Narayan has been accused of breaking. Understandably, Vinay gets frustrated that such laws are still active, but his frustration does not do much to persuade the judge. From the judge’s perspective, it’s black and white: a law is a law. Who is he to break tradition?
“Court” is the debut feature film of 28-year-old Chaitanya Tamhane and he demonstrates a level of confidence you don’t often see from a first-timer. Tamhane is remarkably patient behind the camera as every scene plays out with a minimal amount of shots. Some scenes will unfold in just one long static wide shot. Other scenes may use one or two different angles, but that’s about it. And while some of these long takes can be a bit overindulgent, you have to hand it to the director for being confident that this quiet, almost meditative, approach is right for the subject matter.
Director Tamhane’s stylistic intent is the desire to be as objective as possible. Through the constant use of long, wide shots, we get this idea that nothing we see in this film is out of the ordinary. For example, a wide shot of Narayan Kamble being arrested by police is just par for the course, as he’s been arrested several times before. And Tamhane constantly deploys wide shots during the courtroom scenes to emphasize that this is all business as usual. The movie also reinforces objectivity by letting us take a peek into the lives of not just the defense lawyer and the folk singer, but also the public prosecutor and the judge.
In the end though, any perceived objectivity is an illusion, as the director has a very clear, strong point of view. He just lets the characters speak for themselves through their actions and dialogue. We know it’s wrong for the aging folk singer to remain in prison for months despite not being guilty of anything. We know that the accusations being levied against the singer are ridiculous in general. Narayan Kamble has lived his life trying to spread awareness about the injustices and hardships that take place in his country and he should be allowed to speak his mind. Tamhane feels no need to point all this out to you.
But, for the judge and the public prosecutor, he’s just a nuisance. There’s even a scene where the prosecutor remarks to her colleagues that the case has gone on too long and the judge should just send the man to jail. For twenty years. The prosecutor just wants to move on without much care for this man’s livelihood. Same goes for the judge, who will constantly cut court sessions short and ask the lawyers to come back one or two months later. This case could not be more insignificant to these characters and yet the movie plays out so quietly and subtly that you don’t immediately realize just how much of a scathing indictment it is. That’s why Tamhane’s stylistic choices end up feeling completely justified by the end. If he was beating the audience over the head with these social injustices, like the folk singer does in the movie, it would be too easy to ignore the message and dismiss him. But through this remarkable display of patience and grace, it’s impossible not to be moved as the movie unfolds.
“Court” acquires its power through its thoughtful depiction of the mundane and the ordinary. Often, it’s not about what’s happening in the scene, but the implications behind it. It’s not about watching a judge go on vacation with his family, for example, it’s about what’s happening while he’s on that vacation. Despite its quiet examination of India’s judicial system, Tamhane’s film makes its message loud and clear. It may take awhile for the film to fully take shape, but in the end, it becomes impossible to deny that “Court” is quite good. At times, it even borders on brilliance. [B+]