It is very heartening that Indian cinema is nurturing a bright, young generation of talents, who are making socially conscious movies. Importantly, these films have such engaging characters and narratives, that they don’t come across as films with a ‘message’. These directors include Chaitanya Tamhane (Court), Bikas Mishra (Chauranga), Anand Gandhi (Ship of Theseus), Churni Ganguly’s Nirbashito (The Banished, Bengali) and M Manikandan’s Kaakkaa Muttai (Crow’s Egg, Tamil). They are different from the previous generation of socially conscious filmmakers, in that many of these directors are seriously networked internationally; they often secure foreign funding and foreign crew, international festival selection and awards. Court already has a foreign sales agent, Artscope, while Kaakkaa Muttai, the Tamil film, even has Hollywood’s Fox Star Studios as co-producer and sales agent (come on, now, how many indie Hindi films can boast of Hollywood backing?). And all this, with their very first feature films! This generation understands that the more locally rooted and honest a film is, the more universal its appeal. Now the main challenge is distribution in India (Ship of Theseus, ‘presented’ by Kiran Rao, was released theatrically).
When I saw Chaitanya Tamhane’s short film Six Strands in 2011, I immediately recognised his powerful and distinctive voice. Set in Darjeeling’s tea estates, Six Strands is about a tough woman estate owner tackling a brewing rebellion. In a daring move, the film is in pure gibberish, but sounds like it could be a North Eastern dialect. Court is impressive, and deserves all its multiple awards, including Lion of the Future for Best Debut Film of the festival and Best Film of the Horizons section at the Venice Film Festival, and Golden Gateway for Best Film (International Competition) and Silver Gateway for Best Director, and Jury Special Mention for the ensemble cast at the Mumbai Film Festival.
A searing indictment of the Indian judiciary, Court observes how justice is a luxury only the rich can afford, and how the system ensures that the poor and exploited remain crushed underfoot. The nuanced screenplay received Hubert Bals Fund (Rotterdam) support for script development. Tamhane, who uses music by lok shahir Sambhaji Bhagat, was inspired by the dalit movement, the Kabir Kala Manch, the Binayak Sen trial and the imprisonment of cultural activist Jiten Marandi, among other things.
It follows the case of the death of a sewer cleaner, and the ridiculous charge made by the poker-faced public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) that it was a suicide, inspired by hearing the song of a shahir (poet) and social activist Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar). The defence attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, also the film’s producer), proves how he died following the inhalation of poisonous gases in the sewer, and that the police witness is fake. Yet, Kamble is briefly let off on bail — only after Vora pays his R1 lakh surety — before being casually tossed into judicial custody without any charges being proven — hinting at the endless cycle of injustice for the poor — much as in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid.
Where Court’s screenplay scores, is in the finely observed details of the personal lives and prejudices of the protagonists, and how these influence their professional decisions. Apart from highlighting our antiquated laws, Tamhane’s strength lies in his even-handedness: he humanises and empathises with his protagonists, even as he lampoons them. Judge Sadavarte is deeply superstitious, even advising the parent of a child with a speech disability, to have him wear the right gemstone, than bothering with a speech therapist. Lower middle-class public prosecutor Nutan enjoys right-wing comedies, in which the Marathi manoos promises to kick out “outsiders.” Bored, she wishes the judge would “put Kamble in jail for 20 years and finish the case!” Vinay Vora is a genial ‘champagne socialist’, wealthy enough to afford the luxury of fighting for the poor. He enjoys an evening in a fancy bar, with a woman singing a Portuguese song, and in a very funny scene, after goons bash him for taking on the case, he takes refuge in a salon, his face slathered in soothing cream and cucumber slices.
Equally, Tamhane underlines the dignity of the poor through Kamble’s unwavering commitment to social activism, despite his grinding poverty, illness and stints in custody; and the sewage worker’s widow, who asks Vora for a job instead of money. He draws superb performances from his ensemble cast, notably Geetanjali Kulkarni, and especially from non-professional actors Vira Sathidar, and Usha Bane as the widow. Here’s hoping these — and similar — films find distribution in India soon.
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at [email protected].
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.