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Court Review – BFI London Film Festival Special

Court Review – BFI London Film Festival Special

At the centre, as you might expect from a film titled Court, lies a trial. Yet there is no dramatic grandstanding, no scandalous witnesses, no last minute discoveries of incriminating/exonerating evidence or even much of a conclusion. This is court not in the room drama sense. Instead, writer/director Chaitanya Tamhane’s absorbing second feature uses this most venerable and abused of institutions to explore the state of India and the cultural struggle going on between western and traditional values.

The case that serves as the jumping off point is that of elderly folk singer Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar). The charge against him is ridiculous enough to suggest justice is the last thing on anyone’s mind. A carefully staged opening sees him picked up in the middle of a street performance, accused of provoking a sewage worker into committing suicide after playing an inflammatory song.
court-film-still-01Tamhane wastes no time in establishing the trial as a sham. Witnesses frequently fail to show up, evidence is missing, and naïve and confused people are put up to answer questions and promptly led all over the place by the prosecutor. Sitting above them, the presiding judge watches impassively, repeatedly postponing when an obstacle is reached. This leaves Narayan, denied bail, to stew and decay in prison. As summer recess approaches, it’s not met with an increased urgency from a legal system largely uninterested in the cases before it.

In and out of court, the focus is really on the public prosecutor and the defence lawyer representing two seemingly incompatible sides of the same country. On Narayan’s side sits Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber). He’s a wealthy, western educated young man, implacable in his application of cool headed logic. With increasing weariness, he interjects to stop the enthusiastic prosecutor from practically stringing his client up then and there. Professional as he is, his lack of understanding and empathy for the India of many of his fellow citizens can brazenly burst free. He has no grasp of the Marathi language and at one stage makes an insensitive remark about a group of people that leads to a revenge attack in the street.
court-film-still-02Standing next to him in court is Geetanjali Kulkarni’s prosecutor. A blunt force of nature, she bulldozes law and order to make a case against Narayan, manipulating witnesses and riding over emotional sensibility when dealing with relatives of the deceased. Tamhane’s real stroke of genius comes when he takes them out of court. The prosecutor over coffee is heard complaining about seeing the same faces every day, wishing they could all be sent away. Despite prejudices she’s no stock villain, portrayed instead as a working mother trying to make ends meet for the family on top of her expected cooking and cleaning duties. Vinay on the other hand eats fine meals, shops for luxury items and engages in lengthy conversations about the intricacies of the Indian state.

If no one’s singled out, they don’t come off particularly well under Tamhane’s lens either. Vinay has a streak of cultural arrogance that inflects his interactions; the prosecutor subscribes to nasty provincialism laughing hysterically at anti-immigrant dramas at the theatre with her husband. In the middle lies the legal system that can’t, and often won’t arbitrate between these warring sides. That leaves Narayan beaten down by a system rigged against him. With razor sharp writing Court develops into an intelligent drama shining a critical eye on the ineffectual infrastructure and simmering tensions at the heart of the world’s biggest democracy. Once upon a time the legal system was supposed to bring justice. In Tamhane’s world, it appears everyone’s forgotten.


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