Warning: This review may contain spoilers.
The “courtroom drama” genre in the mainstream cinema usually has certain standard elements: a case with clear distinctions between right and wrong that involves a victim we sympathise with and a perpetrator we despise; the warring, behemoth-like lawyers in black capes going back and forth theatrically, throwing around legal jargon in chaste Urdu; the wisecracking witness often used for comic relief, and sometimes present to offer vital testimony that can change the course of the case; and, finally, the formidable old judge who gently strikes the gavel to restore order in the court when matters go out of hand and performs the all-important task of pronouncing the verdict.
In the end the audience is glad and relived that justice has prevailed, with the villain receiving his deserved comeuppance. They say that fiction is life with the boring bits cut out and that it what is served here.
Chaitanya Tamahane’s debut film Court, which was on September 23 selected as India’s official entry to the Best Foreign Language category of the 2016 Academy Awards, is different. Despite being a courtroom drama, Court systematically breaks all the norms as it depicts the case of a sociopolitical activist accused of abetting the suicide of a municipal worker. The premise is the lower court of Mumbai, the evidence presented is arbitrary and inconclusive, witnesses either don’t turn up or are paid and testimony provided may not be always fact-based. The police sometimes conduct their searches without a warrant, and often forget to document statements from witnesses. Then there are laws that are archaic and absurd but are still applied. The result being that the case is interminable, and the accused finds himself trapped in a Kafkaesque maze with no easy escape despite the insubstantial premise of the case.
Beyond the case we are given a glimpse of the lives of major participants in the case. Away from their ostensibly formidable black and white robes, the lawyers are no different from actors without costume and a script. They come from different strata of the society, both economically and socially. While one shops for expensive wine and dines at fine restaurants, the other cannot afford to cook family meals in the ‘good for health’ olive oil. For some, cases are nothing more than stepping stone towards achieving a promotion and a higher salary; for others it’s about morality and the need to protect human rights.
We see absolute nonchalance in the attitude of some lawyers towards punishment even for improbable crimes; we see them prescribe numerological instead of scientific solutions for medical problems; finally we also seem them partaking in entertainment that is loud and blatantly regressive. With all this you wonder if these people are appropriate to be entrusted with something vital. But despite their questionable morals, they are not villains with agendas to destroy the accused, they are what they are because of the society we live in. They are merely actors playing roles in the legal system: each is playing his part and trying to do the best with whatever role he or she has been assigned. We are told very little about the accused, making it impossible to pass a clear verdict on his morality, but he comes across as an honest man who remains steadfast even as an obsolete and incongruous system gradually infringes upon his basic right of freedom.
The chief virtue of this film is its depiction of the ordinary in a manner that is extraordinary. The induced documentary style and an effective usage of sounds of the city – people, cars, random noise – instead of a dramatic background score add to the element of realism. The lack of any trained actors or recognizable faces is also a huge advantage: there is no ‘acting’, no measured tone and no ‘dialogue delivery’; instead, the characters appear to be real people dealing with real situations and reacting in a real manner. In most scenes moments linger beyond their necessary length which adds to the realism of the depiction. The screenplay, cinematography and art direction create an ambiance of authenticity to the point that the audience feels like a witness to the proceedings.
Another achievement of this film is the satirical tone employed to deliver heavy doses of social commentary. We see the absolute absurdity and paradoxes in and beyond the courtroom which is as sad as it is funny. There are moments that may seem inconsequential or unintentional. But make no mistake: every element on screen is meant to convey something. Watch this film multiple times and you will discover many subtle touches, subtexts and themes.
Will this film win or even make it to the final shortlist at the Oscar? The eminence of the film is just not enough, what is needed is aggressive promotion, including screenings for critics and potential Academy voters. This requires considerable amount of money: if the film manages to bag the backing of a major studio, things would become easier. There is also the question about whether the Academy Awards represent the best in world cinema. But that is a topic for another time. For now, it should be a matter of great pride for all of us that a film of such brilliance will represent us on a global stage.