Judi Dench’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel describes India as ‘an assault on the senses’. It’s a view shared by most British and American films set in India, from Slumdog Millionaire to The Darjeeling Limited and Life of Pi. Movies that look beyond the tourist guide book, especially independent Indian films, tend to disappear from UK cinema screens more quickly. Chaitanya Tamhane's ambitious first feature film, Court, goes on general if limited release in the UK tomorrow (it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2014).
Set in Mumbai, the drama centres on the trial of a Dalit folk singer, Narayan Kamble, charged with abetting the suicide of a sewer cleaner. The words of his angry, passionate songs are under suspicion. Language is in focus in other ways, too: the dialogue in the courtroom slips between English, Marathi and Hindi. Meaning is subtly distorted in the translated summaries of testimony that one of the judges dictates to his stenographer.
Tamhane's inspiration was the trial and six-year incarceration of Jiten Marandi, an activist wrongfully accused of taking part in the Chilkari massacre in 2007, when 19 people were murdered by Naxalites. Marandi was arrested because he happened to share the name of one of the suspects and had used music and theatre to speak out against corruption.
Court isn’t a typical courtroom drama. ‘As soon as you get into a courtroom, you're ahead of the game,’ Sidney Lumet said. ‘You've got the conflict.’ But Tamhane doesn't care for electrifying oratory, shocking revelations or tense cross-examinations. His trial sequences are matter-of-fact and packed with obscure technical detail. He couldn't film in real courts and all the existing courtroom film sets were too shiny, so he built his own, with peeling walls and towers of files.
Away from the court, Tamhane compares the domestic lives of Kamble's wealthy activist-lawyer, Vinay, and his opposing number, the aspiring middle-class government prosecutor, Nutan. After a busy day in court, Nutan collects her son from school and cooks supper for her family while her husband slumps in front of the TV. Vinay, meanwhile, is far removed from the people he represents and fights for, drinking in upmarket bars and waited on by his mother at home. In both the courtroom and in the street, the camera keeps its distance to allow the audience to observe everyday life unfolding.
There’s no revelation of a particular injustice, and no obvious villain. The nameless sewer worker died as a result of his employer’s negligence. The folk-poet is guilty of nothing but being a political protester and a voice for Dalit dissent. The film passes judgment not on individuals, but on an overly bureaucratic and antiquated legal system.
Sedition laws with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment were introduced by the British during India’s independence struggle. They have been revived under Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government. In 2014, a 25-year-old student was arrested for not standing up during the national anthem in a cinema in Kerala. Last month, the student leader of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kanhaiya Kumar, and two other PhD students were arrested for allegedly shouting anti-Indian slogans at a protest rally.
Read more in the London Review of Books