Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court‘s most astonishing feat is how quietly it builds a discourse on pertinent social issues like caste, class, free speech, and justice while reflecting the cruelty of life lived by ordinary people in India. Court remains restrained throughout its running time, thus adopting a meditative tone. This makes the various issues that it tackles profoundly blend into the film’s narrative without much fuss. Even though the film talks about a bunch of issues, Chaitanya, the director, never makes the film feel like a ‘social issue’ film. Rather, Court feels like an extension of reality itself where most of the injustices of our society remain invisible for the most part. We only see them through the cracks that the film eventually points at. This is where the heart of the film lies.
Court, unlike other socio-political dramas, doesn’t force a promise of false hope down its viewers’ throats. It quietly peels the various layers of our society and remains a cynical study of its characters throughout its running time.
Court takes the much-abused structure of a courtroom drama and turns it on its head by calmly destroying the notions of courtrooms that we see in popular cinema. There is no ‘showy’ dialogue, no heavy-handed treatment, and none of the emotional manipulation that has become synonymous with courtroom dramas around the world. Instead, Court uses a quiet, fly-on-the-wall structure to put forth its cynical beliefs towards society. This makes the cruelty of the film appear as unremarkable truths about everyday life.
The film, which is about a Dalit poet-activist getting arrested for allegedly abetting the suicide of a manhole worker, has small dollops of hope scattered throughout its running time (it does this mainly by mirroring the rebellious spirit of Narayan Kamble, the activist on trial) but is thoughtful enough to not hypnotise people with false promises. It slowly and thoughtfully poisons the cosy bubble that most people live in and compels its viewers to look at society’s harsh realities. To attain its ambient and cynical mood, the film uses various sophisticated measures.
One of which is the subtle use of the colour blue. Court uses different shades of blue for different connotations. In all the courtroom scenes in the film, blue is used to provide the film with a deep sense of irony since blue often stands for intelligence and responsibility, while most courtroom proceedings shown in the film are full of absurd and meaningless arguments that go on for long periods. In one such absurd scene, a judge refuses to proceed with a trial because the accused appears in a sleeveless top, which, according to him, goes against the code of conduct in the court. It is pointless absurdities like this that the film tacitly exposes. Court also uses blue to symbolise the purity that gets lost and the corruption that runs deep in the system. This is most evident in scenes with Narayan Kamble, as quite often he is painted in the film with a soft shade of blue, especially when he stands in the witness box.
Another interesting takeaway from the film’s use of the colour blue is that since blue is often associated with Dalit resistance and is used by Ambedkarites all over the country to symbolise their movement, it only makes sense that Chaitanya uses blue to emphasise the struggle and quiet resistance of Narayan Kamble, whose Dalit identity could be the reason behind the stern treatment he receives at the hands of the judiciary.
Apart from the salient colour palette, the film also uses long shots to assert its cynical outlook towards society as well as the idea of invisible injustices. Through long shots, Court tries to mirror how inconspicuous everything is. Life goes on and so does the cycle of everyday injustices and the cruelty of life in a third-world country like India. It carefully brings forward the question about whether our society can ever become truly fair and just in its conduct. But like life itself, there are no easy answers to be found in the film, just deep questions.
While all this adds to the cynical nature of the film, its true embodiment lies in the film’s three central characters, Public Prosecutor Nutan, lawyer Vinay Vora, and Judge Sadavarte. Court, thus, becomes a meeting point for these three diverse characters. Of the three, it is Judge Sadavarte who stands as the clear embodiment of the outlook of the film. Sadavarte is a superstitious High Court judge who believes in numerology and gives silly, impractical bits of advice to his friends. The film thus asks whether a superstitious judge who stinks of bygone traditions can truly carry the weight of the judiciary of the world’s largest democracy. Whether he is capable of giving fair judgments in the cases that he presides over. And if not, then what becomes of those who stand in his court seeking justice?
The cynicism of the film also brings out another important aspect of our society: invisible injustices. Injustices that are swept under the rug of fate and have become the collective blind-spot of the whole nation. The theme of invisible injustices is glaringly visible in the characters of Nutan and Narayan Kamble. The former is an enabler of it while the latter is the one who bears the brunt of it. Nutan is a middle-class public prosecutor who is trying to send Kamble to prison. She never stops to question herself and has deeply-rooted biases. In one of the scenes, she casually remarks that Narayan should be put in jail for 20 years so that she doesn’t have to see the same boring faces every day. Kamble’s activism is a nuisance to her comfort.
Another scene has her going to see a xenophobic play with her family. Her ordeals have made her blind towards everyday injustices and so she laughs while a dogmatic Maharashtrian father insults a boy who has migrated from UP and blames ‘his people’ for taking all the jobs in the city. The scene best reflects her economic status while also giving a glimpse into her biases. While Nutan may not actively participate in some form of discrimination, her unaware nature does act as a sort of enabler for a lot of injustices that exist even today in our society. But the film doesn’t judge her. She is merely like this because she doesn’t know any better.
And then there is Vinay Vora, who acts as a bridge between Nutan and Kamble. Vinay is a soft-spoken, high-class, sophisticated lawyer who uses his degree to help people get justice. But the film portrays his empathy as a direct consequence of his privilege. He does social work simply because he can afford to. The film doesn’t paint him as a hero. Rather he appears very feeble and isn’t as aggressive in his arguments as Nutan. Court doesn’t settle for binaries. There are no ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. There are just everyday people with everyday lives. The film manages to ask important questions by exposing the invisible walls that exist between its characters.
Court ends with a half-asleep Judge Sadavarte slapping a mute kid for abruptly waking him up. The judiciary and the society, both like the judge, want to snore all their injustices away.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.