Just when you imagined that the courtroom drama had no particular place left to go, along comes Chaitanya Tamhane’s fiendishly clever debut feature.
Narayan Kamble (Sathidar) is a 65-year-old social activist and singer who is part of a troupe that performs around Mumbai’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. When he is arrested and charged with inciting a sewage worker to kill himself – supposedly after listening to one of Kamble’s vaguely socially-minded songs – defender Vinay Vora (Gomber) takes on the patently ludicrous case.
But between corrupt police officials, a ridiculous tort handed down from the Victorian era, a stickler of a judge (Joshi), and a dogged public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), the case is not an easy one.
Cinematographer Mrinal Desai maintains an appropriately static gaze and always lingers a beat longer than most cameras would dare, a strategy that proves revelatory in every possible sense. A superficially freewheeling plot jumps between the carefully realised principal characters: Nutan is a hardworking mum-of-two who takes her family to immigrant- bashing pantomimes; Vinay enjoys imported cheese and jazz between social causes; the seemingly patient judge’s capacity for kneejerk cruelty is revealed is a small, incredibly disturbing final gesture.
It took first-time director Chaitanya Tamhane three years to complete "Court", a most deserving prize-winner at both Venice and Dublin last year. Remarkably, he did so using a first-time crew and non-professional actors, a gamble that has greatly aided the picture’s verisimilitude. Beneath the studied neo-realism, the careful humanism and the hustle-bustle of the plot, lies a barbed critique of injustice and a deeply troubling portrait of what passes for freedom of speech and artistic expression under Indian democracy.
Human rights soon look like Nutan’s cheeses: a luxury that only the privileged can afford.
Watching how this magnificent, frequently maddening drama coalesces into a powerful chronicle of gaping social inequalities and judicial inadequacies, it’s impossible not to think of the great Indian master Satyajit Ray. There can be no higher compliment.