“Court”ing Controversy – A Brief Review

film Court official
Vira Sathidar as Narayan Kamble in “Court”

Court is a 2015 Marathi film by Chaitanya Tamhane. While from the name itself it becomes clear that the film has something to do with “court kachari ka chakkar”, it is only on seeing it can one fully appreciate why this movie is a great watch for any sympathetic observer of the progress of human rights, law and their systematic violations in India. The film starts with scenes of some children taking tuitions from one Narayan Kamble, who is the central character of the film. After taking his classes, we find him taking a bus to a spot where a cultural program is taking place to commemorate a (fictional) “Wadgaon massacre”. He is then invited to a stage where he sings a powerful song that calls upon the exploited masses (and evidently, the exploited castes) to identify the exploiters and rise up against them.  From the picture of Ambedkar in the background, it is clear that caste oppression is one of the central themes of what comes later in the film to be called Kamble’s cultural troupe’s performances. Kamble is interrupted by cops who come and arrest him on charges that a song of his had reportedly led one gutter cleaning worker to suicide some days back. His case is taken up by a lawyer named Vinay Vora (played by Vivek Gomber) who has a personal interest in pursuing cases where human rights are likely to be violated. What follows in the film is an elaborate portrayal of not just the court proceedings that seem to make a mockery of justice (more on that later), but also of the personal life experiences of Gomber, the public prosecutor as well as the judge. In course of this portrayal, what we learn is not only the different lifestyles, social statuses and cultural values but also the different life views and ideological standpoints of these major stakeholders in the case. The director wishes to make no pretensions that the life of a working class gutter cleaner or that of a tuition master-cum-social activist is well known to a middle class sympathizer. Which is why we are allowed a brief sneak peek of the place where the deceased gutter cleaner used to stay. Gomber in company of a close aide of Kamble, named Subodh, wanted to talk to the family and the neighbors of the deceased worker. Unfortunately, by then, the wife, daughter and brother of the departed had already left for their village.

A brief sketch of the court proceedings is in order here. The very first witness that was produced by the public prosecutor and police turned out to be a stock eye witness who was used by the same policeman in four earlier cases. It was mainly this eyewitnesses’ account, that only two days before the death of the sewage cleaner Kamble had sung a song, in a program where the cleaner was present, that had allegedly amounted to abetment to suicide, which formed the bedrock of the prosecutor’s case. Not only that, the public prosecutor was constantly asking leading questions to the witness. Finally, the other witness in the prosecution’s case, the wife of the deceased cleaner, was presented in court at a later date. The following details which emerged from the testimony of the deceased’s wife only strengthened the case of Kamble – that the cleaner had lost one eye from infection due to his exposure to filth and harmful gases in the gutter, that he used to consume alcohol before work to bear the stench and that he was never provided and hence never used to wear any protective gear whether for head, eyes or nose – meaning it was in all possibility an accident. Not only that, the wife also said that the deceased had never mentioned of any intention to suicide or any song or person provoking him to take such an action. The prosecution was using the lack of safety equipment near the dead body of the gutter cleaner as a possible proof that he had intentionally jumped and committed suicide. Anyone familiar with the work of the manual scavengers will know well that no such safety or protective gear is provided by the respective municipalities. The film clearly mocks the existing casteist and anti-worker system by using this stark example. Other examples of the shoddy performance of the legal system are also well depicted. For instance, during court proceedings itself, it becomes clear that the chief investigating officer of the case had raided the house of Kamble even without a search warrant and that too in the presence of a minor (Kamble’s granddaughter) – something that is totally illegal. The public prosecutor, instead of sticking to protocol, constantly tried to influence the judge against the accused by raising his  past political affiliations and past legal bookings under Dramatic Performances Act (a colonial era act which is noted for its draconian censorship potentialities) because of accusations of carrying out “seditious acts” through his performances. Later on, the public prosecutor pointed out that two banned books were recovered from the residence of Mr. Kamble. Both were allegedly offensive to a (fictional) community [which according to the defense lawyer Gomber, was a silly accusation because the books just contained valid criticisms of certain ‘irrational’ and ‘harmful’ practices of the aforementioned community]. This time too, the film hits the nail on the head by taking a dig at the ban-mania of Ban-ka-desh called India. The culture of getting easily offended without applying too much thought is within the cross hairs of this insightful film for sure, especially since we are shown that Gomber’s face is blackened by two members of that community while shouting slogans against him for insulting them.  The irony of it all was that perhaps that the system was hellbent on arresting that one person who probably would have cared more about the gutter cleaner than the legal personnel who were trying to give him “justice”.

But even after he is finally granted bail, Kamble is once again arrested through more fabricated evidence. This time the conspirators make sure  that he doesn’t get bail easily, as he is booked under the infamous UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), which not only rules out bail but also allows the prisoner to be kept incommunicado for six long months. We have seen in the case of real life political prisoners who have been radical enough to have earned the wrath of the state as to how this law can be used against activists and anyone who dares raise their voice against a structurally exploitative system.

This brings us to those aspects of the film which may not seem to be part of the main story but which nonetheless play a very crucial part in weaving together the whole social fabric being depicted on screen. The liberal conception and insistence on procedural justice is shattered to pieces as we can see from this very film itself how injustice and prejudice are structurally inbuilt. The director shows this by focusing mostly on the personal lives and world views of the judge and public prosecutor. We see that they are deeply irrational, religious and superstitious people. They are also very orthodox and communal. For instance, the prosecutor and her family are seen enjoying a drama which celebrates Marathi pride and demeans “immigrants” through what is supposedly a comedy. The prosecutor shows her ultra-nationalist side as she bends over backwards to prove that the accused is guilty of “sedition” as she tries to interpret the draconian UAPA and finds no problem in the interpretation that “just about anything” that can be considered worthy of causing harm to the “security and sovereignty” of the nation can make a person liable to be booked under the law. She is also seen to be personally outraged by the liberal stance taken by defense lawyer over the banned books which supposedly criticized some practices of a community. She is seen discussing with her colleagues how the judge is unnecessarily taking time with the Kamble case and should readily sentence him to 20 years of prison! At home, she is seen performing her chores dutifully as a good wife, cooking food for her husband and the children and only then sits down with her own studies. As for the judge, in the courtroom itself, we see his terrible intolerance and sexism as a woman, possibly a Parsi or Christian, is harshly told her case won’t be heard in the courtroom on that day, because she was wearing sleeveless clothes and that seemingly goes against the rules of the court! Later on, we get a more detailed look into his life, as he and several of his family members go on a trip. Here, we see that while on the one hand he eulogizes the neo-liberal market economy which offers high paying job opportunities to degree holders from IIMs etc, at the same time he suggests a relative that instead of just taking his mentally retarded child to a therapist, he should try wearing some ring and changing the name of the child [presumably for luck]. Finally we come to Gomber’s personal life. Here one can raise a legitimate question – was the director somehow showing Gomber and his life as the ideal, secular, progressive alternative? It is difficult to answer that question. While he and his family were shown to be pretty wealthy, there was nothing to suggest if they were explicitly casteist or regressive in any particular way. Gomber was also seen drinking in bars with friends (Western culture?). But nothing is conclusive enough to say that his life was being upheld as the ideal. Perhaps a similarity can be drawn in this regard with Bawandar, a film on the infamous Bhanwari Devi rape case. There too, the urbanites who came in support of Saanvri [Nandita Das] and wanted to pursue her story were apparently shown to be progressive and a clear demarcation was constructed between their urban, sophisticated ways as opposed to the traditional, casteist, sexist ways of the rural subalterns. Whether or not this prejudice was also in built in the case of the venture by director Chaitanya Tamhane is difficult to ascertain.

On the whole though, it is definitely worth a watch and worth showing as well, especially to those who are still not entirely disillusioned about the limitations of the legal system or about the casteist, classist, provincialist, sexist nature of our society.  In a way, the director is questioning the foundations of our society, perhaps in some higher moral court and indeed, without ever making it explicit, he is appealing to our collective responsibility to make a just judgment.

Footnotes:

Awards: National Film Award for Best Feature Film

Marathi film ‘Court’ is India’s entry for Oscars

By Kisholoy 

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