India’s official 2016 Academy Awards entry is probably one of the best foreign films from last year. With his debut feature writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane gives us a social portrait that shies away from stereotypical colour saturation and dance numbers, throwing us into the deep end of a quiet, almost documentary like film on the quiet violence of justice, with a tasty layer of acute sociology.
Narayan Kamble (Vina Sathidan), an aged people’s poet, is arrested on charges of sedition after supposedly inciting a man’s suicide with one of his songs. As the defense lawyer (Vivek Gomber) and public prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) fight the case, we are given the chance to watch not only India’s incredibly bureaucratic legal system, with its archaic laws, mostly used to control freedom of speech and neutralize people considered politically dangerous, Court also gives us a privileged and unvarnished glimpse into both lawyers’ (very different) lives.
Slow-moving, with minimal editing, and most scenes done in one shot, Tamhane’s film strives on his actors’ interpretations, so life-like you completely forget you’re watching a film and not peeking through a keyhole – maybe not a coincidence that actress Kulkarni mentions that each scene took about 30 or 40 takes to get absolutely right. Also, the use of non-actors for certain characters – like the worker’s widow – lends the film a delicate tension that pulls us in without the need for unnecessary drama, a philosophy taken to extremes with the unexpected and sudden ending.
Winner of the Venice Horizons Award in 2014, Court is different from films on the same topic as it does not tell us what to think, and definitely abstains from judging its characters. That does not mean it does not have a message; only that it dares to leave it to the audience’s interpretation. It can be a film about a country that does not allow free speech; it can also easily be a film about the Indian class system and its own beliefs. As we compare the educated, English-speaking lawyer who listens to jazz in his car as he defends the poet and struggles to live in a prejudiced-ridden India, with the female public prosecutor that rides the bus to work, cooks and cleans for her family and studies in her little spare time to become a judge, we realize this is not the black and white territory of a denouncing, fly in the soup film. For a film with so little dialogue (and most of it ridden with legal terms), the density of its characters is a feat in itself.
A subtle study on the violence of justice and the politics of class, and definitely bigger than its national borders, Court does not deserve to be unnoticed, particularly in our times of social unrest.
Court will open on UK on 25th March 2016