“I used to be worried that I didn’t have definite answers for what exactly I would be doing on set that day or how it would turn out. But now, I’ve accepted the idea that I can figure it out and discover it. And the solutions will evolve as I go ahead. The process is the most important thing.”
“What about getting paid for your performances? ” asks Public Prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarn). She’s off screener, while the accused, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), stands for questioning in a Mumbai courtroom. When the old man answers that he is not paid for singing folk songs, she wonders who pays for the stage or sound equipment. “We don’t always perform on a stage,” he says. Ah, where then? she persists. “On the road, in slums, anywhere.”
Narayan Kamble’s response might sum up Court, Chaitanya Tamhane’s wise, incisive contemplation of institutional mechanics, at once intricate, mundane, and utterly fascinating. The case at hand is Narayan Kamble’s, picked up (again) for performing a folk song and accused (this time) of inciting a sewer worker’s suicide. On its face, the charge is preposterous: the worker died of inhaling gas fumes in his toxic workplace, underground. The state argues that 65-year-old Narayan Kamble’s lyrics inspired a deliberate action, one that is premised on his not wearing safety equipment that is not, by the way, supplied by his employer. Much of the film consists of courtroom scenes, where the lawyers make their points as Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi) listens, questions, and opines.
In the courtroom, Advocate (defense attorney) Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) submits that the law informing the charge is outdated (indeed, that it is colonial, a characterization that makes his adversary, Nutan, push back (no matter its outdatedness or immortality, it is the law). Even without much context, you see that the system is rigged, not to produce justice or even revenge, but to keep people performing, to keep workers in line, to give workers something to do, to ensure that people of certain castes and classes remain in their places, that they are intimidated and quiet, not singing in public or complaining about conditions.
The film follows this particular case as it proceeds for days, slowed by routine details, missing witnesses, and assorted legal minutiae, none of it substantive. Before making this debut feature film, Tamhane worked as a playwright; here his observations are quite brilliant. Each day the participants perform in the courtroom, standing and sitting, raising questions, barely listening to one another as they red ahead in their own notes. It begins with Narayan Kamble’s arrest following his performance, in this instance, on a stage. The camera — as in most scenes in this exquisitely composed movie — remains at a distance, watching events unfold without seeming to comment on or shape what happens.
But of course the long distance shot, the stationary frame, and the film’s many long takes are their own poetic compositions, their own commentary, their own assertions. You might feel as though you’re waiting, not being instructed on how to respond, but these slow, generous moments help you to feel exactly a complexity of responses, from frustration to anticipation, from empathy to confusion. You’re watching performances, and you’re aware of your own participation, your own emotional, moral, and political work, your own performance.
In part these questions emerge in Court‘s unusual narrative structure. Rather than following one or two characters, one or two heroes, it offers the experiences of the four major players, the two lawyers, the accused, and, near the end, the judge. You observes these experiences without the typical assistance of soundtrack music or close-ups to structure your feelings. You watch Vinay Vora speaking before a local group of activists 9where he’s outraged by inequalities) and also at his parents’ home, where he, his father, and his mother as well assume her role is to serve them, and where he becomes annoyed when she asks whether he has a girlfriend yet. “Calm down,” Vinay’s father says, seated at their dinner table and barely distracted from his meal by the commotion “This is how he is. He will never change.”
You also see Nutan in various settings. Inside the courtroom, she’s a formal powerhouse, asks tough accusatory questions, pushes her argument, and brooks no deviance from the law’s letter. In her office with coworkers, she complains that the court process works too slowly even when everyone already knows the outcome: “Simply throw him in jail for 20 years and finish the matter,” she concludes. “The same faces, the same stories, it’s boring.” But outside work, say, on the train riding home, Nutan is interested in the material of another woman’s red saree, or out to dinner with her husband and children or laughing along with the audience at a play (where the protagonist ends his performance with a harangue against “immigrants who took our jobs”).
If such moments keep you at a distance, they also suggest the complexities of any everyday life, that the performances in the courtroom are only brief glimpses into an individual’s motivations, beliefs, or fears. When, in the courtroom, the dead man’s widow, Sharmila Pawar (Usah Bane), appears as a witness. Asked about her husband’s “mental condition,” she reveals that he sometimes beat her and their children, that he had no protective gear for work, that he would drink before going to work in order “to bear the stench of the gutter.” The court officials, defense and prosecution and judge alike, listen quietly to her performance, though each has reasons for exploiting her loss. What judgments might they possibly offer, other than the most perfunctory sort? How can they imagine the life she describes? When Vinay returns Sharmila to the slum, she has no experience with a seatbelt. as they drive, she worries that appearing in court will affect her ability to work, asking him to let her know if he knows of a job she might take, any job.
Sharmila’s life beyond the courtroom or her ride home remains off screen, difficult for you to imagine. Various sections of Mumbai appear repeatedly in Court, in long, meditative takes, so you see traffic and building exteriors, crowds immobilized and machines in constant motion. Daily life goes on, a series of performances. Whether people perform to be paid, to survive, or to make cases, they face similar difficulties. it’s hard to be heard and seen, and to be understood.