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Interview Marathi

5 years of Court: Tried to explore the psychological violence of waiting in court, says Chaitanya Tamhane

The young filmmaker looks back on his acclaimed debut project which became a life-changer for him.

Keyur Seta

Young filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane had made a short film, but the road ahead was unclear. While his parents were supportive of his dreams of becoming a feature filmmaker, they were also concerned about his future. It was at this moment that his friend, actor Vivek Gomber, offered to produce his first film, Court. The rest, as they say, is history.

Court travelled around the world to various international film festivals and bagged a lot of awards. Back home, it was chosen Best Film at the 62nd National Film Awards.

Court explored the workings of the lower judiciary in a realistic manner through the story of Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a folk singer and activist. He is accused of abetment of suicide of a municipal conservancy worker through one of his songs. Lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) fights his case. Geetanjali Kulkarni plays the public prosecutor while Pradeep Joshi plays the judge.

Court has released five years ago today (17 April). On the occasion, writer-director Tamhane looks back at the making of the film in an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com. Excerpts: 

How do you feel when you look back at Court today?

It was definitely life-changing. I was like 25 or 26 when I made the film and 27 by the time it came out. Things definitely changed. I travelled the world with the film. And it brought some kind of attention to my work because there was a very supportive and positive response to the film. That enabled me to continue doing what I want to do, which is to try to make films I personally believe in. That led to my second film being made. Also, because of this film I got a chance to be mentored by filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón on his film Roma (2018). 

How did this whole idea came about?

I should give you a disclaimer that I haven’t seen the film. So it will be all from my memory and from what I kind of remember.

Vira Sathidar

Why haven’t you seen it?

I don’t like watching my own work. I haven’t seen it since I completed the film. Not even at the premiere; I was staring at the floor.

I am telling you, it’s a good film.

Thank you. Maybe one day I will muster the courage to watch it (laughs).

[Coming back to the original question,] it was very random. I was watching an American TV show about a court. Suddenly it struck me like what would it be like to go to an actual courtroom in Mumbai and see how things unfold. I was pretty sure it’s not like how it’s presented in films. It started off while trying to explore it in a very Bong Joon-ho manner. Of course, now Bong Joon-ho is everywhere because of Parasite (2019). He has always been among my favourite filmmakers for a long time. I thought how about it being a Bong Joon-ho-ish courtroom drama.

It also came from stories I had heard like people who simply went to a police station to file a report. Then I went to a court and it was extremely fascinating to see how nonchalant and how non-dramatic it was, and also how dramatic it was because so casually and subtly life-and-death decisions were being made. And then the next case would be that somebody trespassed someone’s property or somebody hit someone’s dog. I thought this judge could be my uncle or relative who just happens to be in this position. They are also human in that sense.

That was one strand of the concept. Then I was studying and researching what was happening in the country. A lot of activists were being arrested and charged, which is still the case. Things haven’t changed although the government has. Also, I saw [Dalit activist and revolutionary balladeer] Sambhaji Bhagat perform. So all these things came together when I was trying to write. 

Vivek Gomber and Geetanjali Kulkarni in Court

The actual case of a folk singer being charged with abetment of suicide was the last thing that came to my mind. After banging my head against the wall and brainstorming, this slightly bizarre and absurd case struck me. I was also very nervous whether it would be convincing enough because it’s absurd.

The actor you chose for the role of the folk singer, Vira Sathidar, was absolutely perfect. He is a real-life activist. So how did you find him and how did he get persuaded to act in the film?

It was an extensive casting process. We went to so many different parts of Maharashtra and actually auditioned a lot of real-life balladeers. But that combination of the right look, being able to sing and being able to act was very difficult and that too in that age group.

Then somebody sent us pictures of Vira Sathidar. We were taken aback to see that it is a very good face. He was very enthusiastic about the whole thing. He is not a singer, but he said I know this world and these are people I hang out with on a daily basis. So it wasn’t difficult for him to understand the essence of the character. Then he worked very hard. He is lip-synching to those songs sung by Sambhaji Bhagat. Also his look, willingness and instinct to act, all of that came together. I think we got lucky.

You had said in an earlier interview that you auditioned around 1,800 people in a span of 10 months. What kept you going for so long, considering that things were so uncertain and you still had to make the film after that?

You need that passion and energy. I didn’t know any other way of doing it. It is difficult to maintain the motivation of your team because there was a whole casting team which worked for all those months. Till you don’t get what you are looking for, you just keep at it.

Also, the casting process was beautiful because each audition lasted quite a long time. That process in itself is very fulfilling. That could be a separate documentary in itself. We were auditioning non-actors. Just talking to them was such an enriching and moving experience. I think it’s still pretty much the same because this has also been the process for this new film which I spent four years making.

How did you get such realistic performances from non-actors or untrained actors?

It was very challenging and that’s why you structure and design your entire shooting schedule around the fact that you are going to be working with non-actors or not-very-experienced actors. So you can shoot one scene a day and you can do many takes; like 25 or 30 takes. This is because it’s a different form. There are continuous takes. There are also long takes. So if there is one mistake, you have to start all over again. And the shot needs to have a certain rhythm to it which I should be happy with. If we do too much in a day and if the performances are sub-par, that won’t work.

You had made one short film before Court. But you said you didn’t get any income out of it and there was also [financial] pressure. So did life change for you financially after Court?

Yeah, yeah, 100% it did. Like I said, we got lucky with a few cash prizes. And because of that film there was instant faith in Vivek who also produced my second film. It’s been enough for me to continue doing what I want to do and it has now been five years. That in itself is a privilege.

The court in your film appeared absolutely real since I have been to lower courts a few times. What brief did you give your production designer?

It was interesting. The reference was like how real courts are, but it also had to be cinematic, appropriate for cinema. Anybody can go and sit inside a courtroom, but they are not allowed to click pictures. So these production guys would go to courts and sketch, make notes and try to gauge the dimension. The idea was to not refer to any films. Anyway, you generally don’t get to see the lower courts in films.

Vira Sathidar in Court

Court has some long takes, especially the very last scene where the lights go off in the court one after the other before it gets closed for the day. What was the thought behind this scene?

As a filmmaker you are constantly changing and what films you like keeps evolving. I was in that phase where I really liked watching films which had long takes, that kind of pacing and that sense of time. The other thing was because I was trying to explore the psychological violence that can unfold on a person when you are just waiting in a courtroom. Like, you have to go to the same court for the same case over months and years. So how do you communicate that sense of time? In this film that made sense. It was also to just add that bit of realism where the spectators feel like they are in that room.

How difficult was it to find a producer for such an unconventional film?

It wasn’t difficult. I would say I was extremely lucky to get Vivek to do this. I and Vivek had worked together in theatre. I directed a play called Grey Elephants In Denmark where he was the lead actor. We developed a friendship. Those were the days when I wasn’t getting any income and was struggling. I didn’t want to take up a job. I wanted to write this film. Vivek said he will support me financially and I should just write the script. He said he is commissioning it.

I was very hesitant to take up the offer. Anyway I did as I had no option. He read the script and said let’s make it. So, there wasn’t a struggle that I had this script and I was pitching it to various people.

We see all types of films on TV channels, but Court has not been shown on television yet. Why is that?

For a brief period it was on Tata Sky as they had some tie-up with MAMI [Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image, which runs the annual Mumbai Film Festival]. But this is a question you should ask the TV channels and streamers. I wish I had the answer to that.

What is more challenging for you? Writing or direction?
Writing, 100%! In direction you can blame other people (laughs). In writing you can’t blame anybody but yourself. There is no escape. It’s very lonely. It’s 10 times more difficult than directing.