Chaitanya Tamhane’s stirring debut film Court could easily be accused of being more European art than anything else, with camera-work and film and sound editing evoking strong comparisons to both Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami. In this sense, its perhaps easy to dismiss Tamhane as a potential candidate for a unique Indian voice, many cynics would conclude he is more a mimic of the established European elite. But what needs to be noticed, outside of the style, is Tamhane’s ability to capture the everyday life of Marathi lok, the ordinary conversations, the social discussions, the family dynamics of people in different positions in the legal spectrum, as well as the economic spectrum.
What Indian cinema has sorely lacked, rather, is great storytellers, great observationists, and great communicators. Instead, the constant search for a unique Indian style of cinema has lead to filmmakers like Sriram Raghavan and Dibakar Banerjee whose cinema has loads of potential energy in ideas which is transferred 99% towards creating a style, leaving the potential as is… merely potential. Tamhane on the other hand, and many of his counterpart Marathi filmmakers like Umesh Kulkarni, Ravi Jadhav, Nagraj Manjule and Paresh Mokashi have dug up something incredibly special in their little corner of regional cinema of Maharashtra. They have created a film movement which communicates ideas rather thoroughly, without pretense, but yet, with a sense of respect for the audience’s intelligence. There is nothing that needs to be spelled out through an emotionally charged monologue, rather these Marathi filmmakers wholly accept their medium of cinema as a medium of “show”, not “tell”.
The sequences in Court are divided into the four main players on the chessboard in the film. The convicted, the defense, the prosecution, and the judge. We get a glimpse of their daily lives, their thoughts on society, and a tidbit of just plain old conversation that doesn’t offer any realtion to the story at hand, but rather gives us some depth that these people are layered individuals and their shells peel off outside of the courtroom.
Geetanajali Kulkarni plays prosecutor Nutan in a brilliant performance, and her questions in the court-room are so inane, nonsensical and borderline non-sequiturs that we immediately question her intellect and her common sense. But the moment the camera follows her outside of the courtroom, having a conversation with another woman on the train about where to buy the cheapest vegetables, complimenting her sari and having a nice evening dinner with her family, our accusations themselves are challenged because we see her as us. Tamhane is clever in this regard because forces us to do an about-face several times while still offering a searing portrait of the Kafkaesque Indian judicial system.
By creating portraits outside of the courtroom, with each player as an individual living their own lives, we get a better understanding that this is a system problem, not just a problem of people. It becomes dangerous in many regards, as we see witnesses are bribed to tell accusations against the defendant, we see Hindu fundamentalist groups acting like thugs, beating up the defense council for his remarks against their regressive religious beliefs. Much of the systemic ripple effect that ass-backwards corruption causes is that it empowers the wrong people. Court demonstrates Chaitanya Tamhane’s ability to make us angry over the problem of judicial corruption in India, but then he also forces us to step back and realize that the problem is ingrained, it is not a tick or a spider than you can pick or brush off. It’s a virus that must be infiltrated, extracted bit by bit, changed from the inside out. In this sense, Tamhane’s Court is the ultimate middle-class film, a movie which showcases just how “part of life” bureaucratic corruption is in India’s legal offices, and how much years of culture and social neglect have managed to create an apathetic atmosphere within the society, an atmosphere which can only be dealt with if we start to change minds instead of simply trying to change policy.