Meet the 27-year-old director whose debut swept the Mumbai Film Festival
Chaitanya Tamhane’s accomplished ‘Court’ won awards for best film and direction.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, which won two awards, a special mention and heaps of praise from the audience at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival, is among the fortunate few Indian features that hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped since.Twenty seven-year-old Tamhane’s expertly calibrated debut topped the best director and best film categories in the International Competition section, beating other first features from foreign filmmakers. The accomplished 116-minute drama, which centres on hearings regarding the prosecution of a radical Dalit poet and singer, also picked up a “special jury mention” for its mostly non-professional cast.

Tamhane wrote Court in 2011 and completed it in 2013. It premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival earlier this year, where it picked up the Lion of the Future Award for the best first feature as well as the top prize in the non-competitive Horizons category. Court has an international distributor, Memento Films, but no Indian company has asked for domestic rights just yet – though that might change with the MFF gongs.

The Indian law and its discontents

What Indian distributors will make of the multi-lingual movie (it has dialogue in Hindi, Marathi, English and Gujarati), its stately pace, minutely observed situations,  muted acting and subtle yet unmistakable political subject, is another story.  Court is a remarkably assured, engrossing study of the power of the law and order machinery to crush protest through delays, deferred hearings and demands for further evidence.

Tamhane’s screenplay draws from real-life incidents and characters. In the film, radical Dalit poet and singer Narayan Kamble’s is arrested after being accused of performing an incendiary song that pushes a sewer cleaner to suicide. Court stands at the rim of the sewer, looking curiously into it, never descending into its depths, but never quite moving away from the stench either.

Mainstream cinema has reduced the legal drama to a farcical fantasy of instant justice, populated by gavel-banging judges, aggressive defence lawyers, and crooked public prosecutors. Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho and Hansal Mehta’s Shahid were rare realistic depictions of the workings of the judiciary. Court’s vocabulary brings it in line with contemplative international arthouse storytelling conventions, particularly from Taiwan and Thailand. Much of the film takes place inside courtrooms, where the legal process unfolds languorously.