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Pride and Prejudice in Chaitanya Tamhane’s ‘Court’

Chaitanya Tamhane's much lauded film is an exemplary take on the workings of the Indian legal system. It takes a close look at one of the most important factor in the execution of justice — the prejudices of people working within the system.

Shriram Iyengar

In one scene of Vijay Tendulkar’s acerbic satire ‘Silence! The Court is in Session…’, the judge tells the defense lawyer, ‘Did you notice also, that the charge is important from the social point of view?....That is why I deliberately picked it. We have to hold society’s best interests in all we do.” Among the first and most effective playwrights to portray the effects of an unfeeling, amoral judicial machine on the common man, Tendulkar explored the still virgin idea of oppression by law through his plays. Another splendid work, ‘Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!’ focussed on legal functioning as the convoluted snare which traps the common man looking for justice. It is into these ranks that Chaitanya Tamhane’s wonderful ‘Court’ seeks admission.

Premiering in Venice, Court won the Best International Film prize and the Luigi Laurentiis prize for its director, 28 year old Chaitanya Tamhane. The film about a court case playing out in one of the many lower courts of the city beat bigwigs like NH10, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and other dark horses like Killa and Kakka Muttai in the race to be India’s official entry to the Oscars. While it continues to tour internationally, it is the film’s local milieu and familiar tragedy that makes it so compelling to watch.

The Indian court is the hallmark of its bureaucracy. A mechanical system of rules and files that seek to dictate the justice delivered to claimants. In ‘Court’, a sixty year old man is brought to court on the charges of inciting the suicide of a manhole worker. The man is a social activist and a poet. Tamhane explores the irony of a poet accused of killing the very individual that his songs seek to liberate. But it is the interpretation of the law by these common individuals involved in the uncommon job within the legal machinery that makes it so interesting.

Tamhane’s courtroom is sedate and boring. There are no dashes of colours or maize green tables that make for the traditional courtroom in Indian cinema. There are no high tension oratories or booming baritone voices that echo through the rooms. The plaster on the walls is peeling. The fan moves at the same glacial pace as the proceedings of the court. The members involved look as though they would rather be some place else. These features are common sight for anyone who has had the fortune (or misfortune) of attending one of the many sessions courts in the massive city of Mumbai. As the cinematographer of the film, Mrinal Desai, puts it “..We wanted the position of neutrality, of an observer. The constant endeavour was to not intervene.”: And he manages that with great success. The film maintains an objective look at the opinions expressed in the movie, without supporting or denying it. It plays the perfect lawyer, one with no prejudices. An irony so strong that it acts as the perfect template for the satire on screen.

In one scene of the film, the judge dismisses a petition for a lady because she has come dressed to the court in a sleeveless top. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is the marker which defines the movie. As the debate over ‘intolerance’ and ‘freedom of dissent’ rages in the country, the film is a reminder of the diverse ideologies and cultures that exist within the legal system itself. It is this diversity that also proves to be the biggest hindrance to its functioning. Picture this, the prosecutor, played brilliantly by Geetanjali Kulkarni, is a conservative, educated housewife who thinks nothing of laughing out loud at crass jokes on migrants. She considers the protest poetry espoused by Narayan Kamble to be a bother, and jokes that he should be sent to jail for twenty years to spare the trouble. Her pride of culture and her own capabilities prevent her from accepting that the defense might have a case. On the other end of the spectrum is the defense lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, also the producer, is perfect for the restrained role); an educated, liberal, tired lawyer who is fighting for the freedom of his client with all the dices stacked against him. His pride of his liberal opinions and education prevents him from seeing into the possibility of a poem affecting an individual life.

Where Tamhane excels is not pronouncing the judgment, but in making the argument. In fact, the whole movie is nothing but a long drawn out argument for the benefit of its audience, who act as its jury. The screenplay moves with the patience of a lawyer listening to an argument, peppered by the prejudices and the personal ideologies of the members of the court themselves. At one point, the prosecutor asks the poet if he would refrain from writing such a song in the future. The poet simply answers no. There is no drama to the statement. For him it is a simple declaration of his values. For the prosecutor, the same word is proof of the poet’s commitment to causing harm and ‘disturbing the peace’. It is this conflict of prejudices and values that defines ‘Court’. Tamhane reiterated in an interview “But while talking to lawyers, I realised the law is not absolute; it’s interpreted. Then, who is responsible for the interpretation becomes important because each person comes to the table with their own set of prejudices and biases, values, and ethical and moral conditioning.”

As the lawyers and the courtroom argues the case, one is reminded of William S Burroughs quote “As one judge said to another judge: be just. And if you can’t be just, be arbitrary.” Burroughs sought to explain the difficulties involved in interpreting the law to its exact measures. The personal opinions of legal experts will always tint their decisions. As a movie, ‘Court’ seeks to offer audiences a satirical take on one of the fundamental institutions that upholds our constitution. It also opens room for the debate as to how the law is defined. By doing so, it becomes one of the few films to courageously explore the pride and the prejudice of the people involved in safeguarding our fundamental rights.