Is there a less desirable room to be in than a courtroom? True, courtrooms are the spaces where civility and rhetoric determine the justice of actions, but entering one is like traversing Dante’s Inferno. Justice may be served. You might even come out the victor. But getting there is a laborious and Kafkaesque process. Ever watched a high-profile court case conclude with one of those impromptu press conferences on the courthouse steps? Don’t they look exhausted? And they’re the winners. Imagine how the losing side feels.
Thankfully, Court’s depiction of courtroom proceedings is anything but exhausting, despite how accurately it portrays the absurdity. The debut feature from Indian writer/director Chaitanya Tamhane revolves around Narayan (Vira Sathidar), an aging teacher and folk singer charged with abatement of suicide when a Mumbai manhole worker is found dead in the sewer. The state claims that Narayan performed an inflammatory song that convinced the man to commit suicide by entering the sewer without proper protection and suffocating himself to death. At no point does anyone acknowledge that this might be the most horrific way to voluntarily end one’s life. But that doesn’t seem to matter, least of all to the wealthy defense attorney, Vinay (Vivek Gomber), who takes on the hardworking Public Prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and Judge (Pradeep Joshi), a man more concerned by the rules of the game than the reality of the situation.
Tamhane’s interest lies not in Narayan’s trial but in the asinine bureaucratic process that dictates the courtroom as well as society. There is a point where the Judge reschedules the hearing of another case simply because the accused show up in the wrong attire. What’s the point in playing the game if the rules aren’t obeyed? And if those roles are archaic, then so be it. We must have rules.
Tamhane finds humor in these rules and visually exploits them as best he can. Court is filmed almost entirely in long static shots with little camera movement—wide-angle observations that allow the eye to wander back and forth between the characters and the world they inhabit. This stylistic rigor allows Tamhane to plunder his story for humor rather than pain, often letting shots go on far after the scene has concluded. He waits, patiently, for something funny to happen, easing the pain and frustration of living.
What Tamhane ultimately crafts is a portrait of a society where the lower classes push against their roles while upper classes argue about how that should be done. How poetic that Tamhane selects a wealthy attorney to defend the accused artist against a middle-class prosecutor over the death of a working-class laborer—a man who literally climbed in the bowels of the Earth to scrape shit off the walls.
Tamhane’s approach to Court, and possibly life, is a refreshing one. The answer to all of this misery and pain is to sit back, silently contemplate, and then laugh directly in its face. It’s not much, but it’s something.
Written and directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Produced by Vivek Gomber
Starring: Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Pradeep Joshi, Shirish Pawar, Usha Bane
Zeitgeist Films, Not rated, Running time 116 minutes, Premiered Sept. 4, 2014 at the Venice Film Festival.