Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Cast: Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Pradeep Joshi, Usha Bane, Shirish Pawar
Twenty-one years ago, in a film called Damini, Sunny Deol delivered a memorable diatribe against the Indian judicial system.
Tareekh par Tarikh, tareekh par tarikh, he bellowed in a crowded courtroom. He ended by telling the judge:
agar unhe insaaf nahin de sakte to band kijye yeh tamasha.
The tamasha, which of course continues unchanged, has been captured with a chilling matter-of-factness in Court, the brilliant debut of 27-year old Chaitanya Tamhane. Court is about an elderly poet-singer singer and social activist Narayan Kamble who is charged with inciting a sewage worker to kill himself. It is alleged that the sewage worker listened to Kamble's song, lowered himself later into a sewer without safety equipment and willed himself to die by inhaling noxious fumes.
It's an absurd charge but Kamble is put into jail and the 'tareekh par tarikh par tarikh tamasha' begins. But unlike Damini, there is no oratory here, no theatrics, not even any thundering background music cuing us to feel rage. There is simply a Kafkaesque theater of the absurd. The laws being cited are outdated and irrelevant. The procedures are archaic, labyrinthine and designed to favor the rich and marginalise the poor. At one point, the presiding judge refuses to hear a woman's case because she is wearing a sleeveless top – apparently a violation of the court's requirements of modest dress.
The hardest part in this very tough film comes toward the end when the sewage worker's widow comes in to testify. In a few minutes, Tamhane captures the brutality of poverty. The director deliberately narrates at a measured pace. His camera stays on the scene even after the main drama is over. Each frame is filled with meaning. Court is a severe indictment of the Indian judiciary but it's also an insight into the various divides – class, money, caste, region, religion.
It's a lot to say in one film but Tamhane, who also wrote the film, does it with impressive economy and elegance. Not surprisingly, Court has picked up awards at almost every festival in which the film has been screened – including the Venice Film Festival and the Mumbai Film Festival. Catch it wherever you can.