Showing in Venice’s Orizzonti sidebar, Chaitanya Tamhane’s quietly brilliant Court (2014) takes an individual court case and, through following its laborious labyrinthine process, creates a damning j’accuse of wider Indian society. Narayan Kambal (Vira Sathidar) is the defendant. In the first shot we see him at work in his local community, teaching school children geography. He boards a bus which takes him to a rally to commemorate a massacre. Here with his group, this unassuming, white-bearded gentleman is transformed into the “people’s poet”, singing songs denounces racism, nationalism, the caste system and pervasive corruption. Tamhane keeps his camera on Kambal’s performance and it’s riveting stuff.
However, as the police begin to gather at the edges of the crowd the performance is interrupted and Narayan is arrested. Charged with inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide, the accusations are obviously politically motivated and serve simply to take a voice of the opposition out of circulation. His lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), a wealthy young man, is seen at a meeting describing this modus operandi of the Indian state in detail. What then follows is a series of hearings which can be interrupted at any moment as witnesses fail to show up and the police wish to gather more evidence against the detainee, with a date for a further hearing set then and there. All the while Narayan remains in jail and is denied bail. In fact, we see very little of him as the Indian judicial system effectively swallows him whole.
Defending lawyer Vinay bickers with his wealthy parents, commits himself to the cause but he is himself not immune to attack when he makes a flippant comment in court and upsets a local sect. We also see the much humbler home situation of the prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni), who although prosecuting the defender pitilessly is still a devoted mother, holding down her job and cooking for her husband and children. We even see their visit to the theatre, albeit to see a poisonously anti-immigrant comedy. The court case itself is bizarrely fascinating as the two lawyers chip at each other’s arguments and the judge occasional halts proceedings to record a statement which a clerk types into an ancient computer. There is no urgency to it and no scenes of anger or heightened emotion. Mrinal Desai’s cinematography captures everything in dispassionate long shots where injustice lurks. Any anger is left to the audience.
The prosecutor complains that she’s bored of seeing the same faces. “Sentence him to 20 years and let’s go onto something new,” she says as she peels an orange and passes segments around. This is the careless grinding away of human freedom by an arid system which is nevertheless run by human beings with all their frailties and complexities. The searing language of the song we hear Narayan sing is silenced by dry legal formulas given in Hindi, English and Marathi, as his life is ebbing away in a series of dates and endless deferral. The court is no longer a place where truth is discovered, but rather a form of punishment in itself. Although Tamhane’s film recalls Franz Kafka in its nightmarish vision of inhumane bureaucracy, Court is neither faceless nor surreal. Rather, the absurdity and numbness are all too human and as such even more frightening.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.