In a shabby courtyard in Mumbai, a folk singer is midway through a fiery rendition of his own composition. His performance is interrupted by the police, who arrest him for abetting the suicide of a manhole worker. The singer, Narayan Kamble, is clueless. His cluelessness is echoed by a large-hearted, upper middle-class lawyer who takes on his case out of goodwill. He goes up against the byzantine nature of India’s legal system, and we follow them down the rabbit hole.
Debutante Chaitanya Tamhane’s “Court” is a masterpiece: one of the best films of the year. It is keenly felt and packed with acute observations, not just about its characters but also about life in India today. Its sincerity leads to moments of quiet devastation, while the script’s wit ensures numerous laughs.
“Court” premiered at Venice last year, where it won the Best Film in the Horizons category and the Luigi De Laurentiis award for Tamhane. The feature has since then gathered accolades from festivals in Antalya, Vienna, and Singapore. It was named the Best Feature Film at this year’s National Film Awards in India — the country’s equivalent of France’s César Award.
As the film commences its limited stateside release at the Film Forum from Wednesday, Indiewire caught up with Tamhane (at a magicians’ convention, no less) to discuss scriptwriting, the potential of Mumbai and artistic intent.
There’s a micro- and macro-picture to the film: the Kafkaesque trial of Narayan Kamble and the equally absurd universe of Indian courtrooms. Which came to you first?
The case of Narayan Kamble came much later in my scripting process. I began with the setting of the courtroom. The idea of following a case in a low-level court in Mumbai — with all its chaos, mismanagement and the kind of people who inhabit that room — was the starting point for me. There was a lot of research involved: Visiting different courts in Mumbai and talking to legal experts, activists and judges.
The characters evolved from my research. I had the two lawyers and judge in mind, with their personal lives and scenes etched in my head. But I didn’t have the main case — the springboard for us to go into their heads. I had this crazy set of 13-14 conditions that the case had to meet. It seemed like an impossible task: what would this case be about?
How then did you come up with the case we see in the film?
Two things happened. I came across the case of Jiten Marandi, a protest singer from northern India who was wrongly accused and sentenced to death. There were many petitions and activist movements to stop this ridiculous charge against him. I also read an article in Tehelka magazine by S. Anand about the terrible conditions of manhole workers. And after lots of struggling, these two ideas clicked together. I formed a connection between them to form a bizarre case of a manhole worker committing suicide because of a protest singer. The actual case was the final piece to fall into place.
How did you balance the need for an engaging narrative with a desire to provide some social critique?
The commentary wasn’t at the top of my agenda when making “Court.” I was more interested in the characters, their personal lives and who they were as people. Once I was exposed to certain realities of the judiciary and Indian society, and as working on the film shaped my own politics, it became hard to ignore it or not include it in the story. That is more a by-product rather than a pre-occupation I was obsessed with. I was more interested in the narrative on a humanistic level rather than a political or a social level.
Speaking of a humanistic level, while making “Court,” were you inspired by any particular artist known for their work’s empathy? Today people like Asghar Farhadi and Abderrahmane Sissako could be called poetic humanist artists.
I can’t pinpoint any one source of inspiration in my case. But I do remember “The Office” by Krzysztof Kieslowski, which was a formative viewing experience. Then there’s “10e chambre – Instants d’audience,” a documentary by Raymond Depardon. I find Jia Zhangke’s films, especially “Platform,” remarkable for their level of insight.
Yet, the film’s tone is something I came up with by myself. I started with the courtroom setting because I saw scope for humour and satire in it. But while talking to lawyers, I realised the law is not absolute; it’s interpreted. Then, who is responsible for the interpretation becomes important because each person comes to the table with their own set of prejudices and biases, values, and ethical and moral conditioning. That was a narrative and tonal breakthrough for me.
What approach did you take to the genre when you were writing the script? And could you give an example of how it evolved during the writing process?
We have always seen these films where the lawyers are so dramatic and there’s one clear protagonist who we are supposed to be rooting for. I was trying to subvert the genre. I thought it would be fascinating if there were no one protagonist you could cling to but instead you treated every character — the defence, the judge — as a real, three-dimensional person. Who they are outside the courtroom and what kind of an influence that would have on their life-and-death decisions inside the courtroom impacted me.
While I was writing, there was a lot of trial and error as I was trying to fit different pieces together. For example, the public prosecutor character was male for a long time. I felt the film was becoming too “male” with all main characters being men. So I thought about changing that character to female. Consequently, all those scenes evolved and it lent a different texture to the film.
One criticism the film has faced, especially in Indian circles, is of being an editorial about India made for Western audiences. What do you think of this allegation?
I don’t think about it at all, to be honest. What else can I say? I’m a Marathi boy born and raised in Mumbai. I made a film based on my personal experiences and what I have seen growing up. One review said the scene where the girls come dancing after Narayan’s performance is a way to comment on society. But that’s actually something I’ve seen growing up in my grandmother’s chawls (*). I think it’s very presumptuous of people to claim they understand a filmmaker’s intentions. No one can make that claim — you don’t know what’s happening inside a filmmaker’s soul. At best you can hazard a guess.
I can’t argue with someone’s experience. If they felt a certain way, then fair enough. But to claim that is exactly the intention with which I made the film is really ridiculous. Either you don’t understand artistic expression at all or you’re claiming some supernatural knowledge of another person’s inner world.
It’s ironic because “Court” was rejected by many film festivals. When we were making it, we were sure no one in the Western world would understand it at all. There is absolutely no simplification in the film of its subtext or cultural context. The word “Dalit” (Untouchable) is never uttered in the film except when referring to a political party. We never simplify the caste system. We never cared if audiences would understand the Marathi milieu or the vagaries of a Gujarati family.
Some criticism has also been talking about the “European form” of the film. I’d say these people haven’t seen enough Asian films. Moreover, if we were getting so regionalistic or nationalistic, then please tell me what even is “Indian cinema.” I don’t know. It has so many forms and is so diverse.
(*) chawls are tenement housing built in the early 1900’s primarily to house migrant workers coming to Mumbai.
How crucial was your Mumbai upbringing to the film’s setting? How did you want to depict it on screen?
Mumbai is, I’m sorry for the cliche, an invisible character in “Court.” The kind of diversity that you find in the city is unparalleled in India. Some of the scenes, locations, and people in the story and the play of the language in the dialogue — they are unique to Mumbai.
While shooting, we were very specific in trying to get the right spaces that evoked a memory or experience of a Mumbai that only an insider could truly relate to or understand. That was our brief to the colorist as well: We didn’t want the city or images to look European. We asked them to keep some of the dirt, for Mumbai to look like Mumbai.
What did you look for from your actors on set?
The film’s shooting, once we had lit the space and once the production design was in place, was only about the acting. We spent the entire day trying to find truth to the acting. Now a lot of us people credit us for taking such big risks: Undertaking the challenge of shooting in a real setting with sync sound, first-time producer, the uncertainty of a mixed cast with mostly untrained actors. But I’d say that was partly because we had nothing to lose. We didn’t make the film with any great expectations; we just did what we wanted to do.
On set there was a sense that this was the one time we had to make a film the way we wanted to — courtesy a very brave producer. So we might as well try every crazy idea we have.
How was working with a cast comprising a mix of trained and untrained actors?
It was challenging: working with this very diverse set of actors. The script contained really long scenes and we had quite a big cast. They had to be handled differently. We did a lot of takes, 35-40 on average, because it was like the Rube Goldberg effect: If one thing went wrong, we’d have to start all over again. We went up to 60-65 takes in some scenes. Even in the edit bay, it became a process of hunting for the best take of the scene.
It became a test of my emotional strength and everyone’s patience when we didn’t have the scene. The actors would feel guilty about holding the entire crew up: “Why is it taking so much time?” But the way we had prepared the schedule, we were only shooting one scene a day. We knew they would take time. Moreover, in many scenes, there are no cuts at all. We didn’t have any leeway or safety in terms of editing. We had to get the entire scene bang-on.
What will be your next project after “Court”?
I’m trying to develop a couple of projects. I have a sitcom for the Web in mind. At this point it’s a bit vague even for me. I’m trying to work on a feature film, but it takes me a long time to commit to something and come up with a concrete plan. This feature would be very different from “Court” in its form and subject matter. I’m pretty excited about it but also nervous because I’m slightly clueless right now. I don’t know where it’ll go.
As a second-time filmmaker, what advice do you wish you could have given yourself when you were still working on your first film?
After making “Court,” I’ve realised it’s okay to not know things, to be unsure about questions that bother you, and to discover things. I used to be worried that I didn’t have definite answers for what exactly I would be doing on set that day or how it would turn out. But now, I’ve accepted the idea that I can figure it out and discover it. And the solutions will evolve as I go ahead. The process is the most important thing.