A lot of contemporary Indian cinema can be accused of being passive. It demands little from the viewer and in turn, feeds all relevant information and dialectic in a form that can be readily consumed. If you look at commercial Indian cinema, there is definitely a huge market for this kind of passive filmmaker-audience relationship. The perception of cinema as a form of escapism is still quite dominant when analysing the role of the big screen in Indian society.1 However, there appeared to be encouraging signs that this outlook was slowly but surely changing. Looking at Hindi cinema – the success of directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Dibaker Banerjee and Shoojit Sircar among others – who’ve invariably found success while experimenting with form, structure and narrative expectations, signaled a change in the way Indian audiences experienced cinema. It indicated that they were at least willing to be more active participants in experiencing the visual medium, as opposed to being just passive consumers of it. In this hopeful tradition comes director Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, which asks its audience to engage actively with the narrative on screen more so than any other Indian film in recent memory.
The film follows the trial of the elderly Narayan Kamble (a stellar performance by Vira Sathidar), part teacher, part activist, who stands accused of abetment of suicide in a lower court of Mumbai. It doesn’t take long for this trial to descend into a never-ending Kafkaesque nightmare. Anecdotes from the personal lives of those involved in the court procedure are interspersed throughout the film to punctuate the legal narrative.
It’s an open secret that India’s legal system is undoubtedly broken. However, cinematic depictions of this theme tended to favour dramatic flair and over-the-top scenarios. The actual legal procedure often took a backseat in earlier films for fear of it being perceived as ‘dull’. However, Tamhane breaks all conventional stereotypes and sheds a spotlight on the nightmarish quality of legal procedure in India. The procedural scenes are often extended takes that amplify the moribund and macabre nature of the legal system. Slabs of legislative text are read out in a single breath without any exposition and are understood to be self-explanatory – in one hilarious scene, the prosecuting lawyer reads out an extended legislative passage that shows the absurdity of legal jargon. Laws dating back to the Victorian era still operate today because judges are unwilling to use their discretion in interpreting them. The burden of proof happens to be on the defence as opposed to the prosecution and the judge often completely misinterprets the gist of submissions when instructing the court typist. Tamhane’s world is a bleak one, and it could’ve been heavy viewing if the whole situation wasn’t so absurdly funny.
However, it would be a gross injustice to relegate Court to the status of a simple legal drama because it’s so much more than that. It captures the incessantly bleak realities of class structures and social hierarchy in India in a manner that no film has done before. Feudalism is seen to be alive and well and is represented through the misconduct and ineffectiveness of the police. The defence lawyer has his face ‘blacked’ as a form of humiliation for hurting the sentiments of a religious sect when one of his legal submissions are taken completely out of context.
The impact and meaning hidden in the narrative of Court isn’t limited to Indian society. There are some situations that apply to the Australian context as well. In a scene from a play within the film, the actor exclaims that foreigners from other states have come to Maharashtra and taken the locals’ jobs and their livelihood. This gets a loud cheer from the audience watching the play. I could see some people shifting in their seats uncomfortably while witnessing this scene. There are some unmistakable parallels that can be drawn from this scene and its popular reception, the undercurrent of xenophobia and racism bubbling under the surface of Australia’s public discourse the most stark for this festival audience.
Mrinal Desai’s cinematography is top-notch and is layered with meaning. The empty shot of the courtroom, late in the film, is particularly powerful: here, the instrument used to inflict immeasurable chaos, pain and suffering is captured in all its glory. The courtroom is very much a character in itself in this film and the way the camera lingers for those extra seconds as the lights go off, it makes the place look surreptitiously insidious. The way the film veers off into tangential subplots that show the lives of the two opposing lawyers, which naturally contrast with those of the judge, are instrumental in showing the class structures and social hierarchy that is institutionalised in Indian society and reflected in this legal system.
Court is also noteworthy because it completely inverts western perceptions of what it is to be like existing in the absurdly cruel universe that is India. This film is a form of blatantly honest self-reflection. However, instead of relying on glorifying visions of poverty and the inherent class divide, the narrative is deliberately pared back. In that sense, it’s often a difficult and slow-paced film to watch, but one that’s ultimately very rewarding.
There has been a long wait for a film that could invariably capture the cruel and absurd dichotomies of living in India and finally, Court has ended that wait. It asks a lot of its audience and opens a new door for the way forward for Indian films. The intricacies of its narrative threads have contentious connotations, but if you’re willing to engage with the action on screen as a viewer, you’ll have a thoroughly enriching experience.
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