Poetic Justice

Melissa Anderson on Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court

Chaitanya Tamhane, Court, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 116 minutes. Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar).

IN AN ARTICLE in Forbes India earlier this year, writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane called his movie Court a “complete subversion of the courtroom drama.” Set in Mumbai, where the filmmaker was born in 1987, Court contains no dramatic scenes of gavel-hammering or eleventh-hour confessions. Suffused with a pointed, cool, never didactic despair, Tamhane’s narrative-feature debut exposes India’s highly dysfunctional judicial system, one still upholding scores of laws dating back to British rule almost seventy years after independence.

Entangled in this web of legal and bureaucratic absurdity is Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a sixty-five-year-old activist poet and performer who has been arrested for the “abetment of suicide”: Officials claim that one of the white-bearded bard’s fiery songs led a sewer worker to take his own life. Narayan is represented by Vinay (Vivek Gomber), who in his off-hours attends seminars on “Dissecting Democracy”; arguing the case against the “people’s poet” is Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), who accuses him of sedition as defined by the Dramatic Performances Act, implemented by the Raj in 1876. Presiding is Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), whose adherence to due process is arbitrary at best: All too willing to let Narayan’s trial drag on for months, he refuses to hear a separate claim because the female plaintiff is wearing a sleeveless top.

To underscore the protracted crawl of Narayan’s case, Tamhane and his cinematographer, Mrinal Desai, record the action in the courtroom (and much of what happens outside it) in long, fixed takes. Scenes stretch several seconds, sometimes minutes, past what we have assumed to be their natural conclusion. This odd rhythm is especially effective as we witness, once the judge has declared that court is adjourned for the day, the room empty out; after the lights have been switched off and the door closed, we remain inside the darkened space for several beats. Court also depicts its three legal professionals when they’re not wearing black robes, and the transitions to the domestic lives and leisure hours of the central trio are also marked by a peculiar tempo, paradoxically both abrupt and seamless. Rich in detail, these moments offer further hushed but no less biting commentary on tradition and nouveau practices: Nutan is shown cooking and waiting on her family in their cramped lodging; Sadavarte advises a relative concerned about his severely language-delayed son to consult a numerologist; Vinay favors upscale spa treatments and shopping in gourmet markets.

“This film is very culture-specific. We had very little hopes of the international audience even getting it,” Tamhane added in Forbes India. (Court had its world premiere last summer at the Venice Film Festival, where it won two awards.) But labyrinthine legal processes, of course, are not limited to India. While watching Court, I was reminded of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a recent Israeli narrative feature that follows the maddening years it took the title character to obtain a divorce, which, under the laws of that country, can be granted only if the husband gives full consent to the marriage’s dissolution. In his appreciative piece about Tamhane’s project for, journalist Samanth Subramanian notes, “India’s courts are indeed choked, with more than thirty-one million open cases awaiting resolution.” Stateside, no case highlights a similar failure of the justice system more than that of Kalief Browder: Held for three years (two in solitary confinement) at Rikers Island without ever being convicted of a crime and without ever standing trial, the twenty-two-year-old committed suicide, two years after his release from prison, last month.

Court plays at Film Forum July 15–28.