The film has been called a damning critique of a criminal justice system that crushes the poor and exploited underfoot.
With ten awards and counting, Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut feature film Courthas had a remarkably successful run so far on the Film Festival circuit. Opening with two prizes at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, it has so far picked up honours at Turkey’s Antalya Golden Orange Festival, the Mumbai Film Festival, the Austria Viennale, the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, Ukraine’s Kiev Molodist Festival and Belarus’ Minsk Festival.
Director Tamhane’s script revolves around the proceedings of a trial in Mumbai of an aging Dalit cultural and social activist, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), indicted on patently sham charges of his songs having incited a sewer worker to commit suicide. Unlike Bollywood courtroom drama, Tamhane’s Court is striking for its undramatised, realistic portrayal of court proceedings. It also has an unusual and disquieting depiction of the ordinariness of the lives of officials like the Public Prosecutor and Judge and their mechanical approach to the judicial processes that decide destinies. The litigants, meanwhile, remain mere bystanders in various states of dazed despair. As the trial drags on endlessly, Kamble is finally bailed out by his human rights lawyer, only to be quickly re-arrested under draconian provisions of law like sedition and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA]. The film has been called a damning critique of a criminal justice system that crushes the poor and exploited underfoot.
Tamhane’s characters are admittedly fictional and located in the big metropolis, but the story they tell is never far away from real life court-room and prison tragedies played out everywhere – whether in metros, district towns or remote forests. Take the abetment to suicide charge for example. Reviewers have variously called it absurd, ridiculous or plain farcical and seen it to be merely a satirical play – something that does not actually happen in real-life. But reality often throws up cases much more absurd, particularly if the police have got orders to target someone, often a dissenter.
Court’s lead actor – A victim in real life
Vira Sathidar from Nagpur, who plays the lead role of Kamble in the film, but is a distributor of progressive books in real life, has often himself been at the receiving end of such action. On October 15, 2006, he was picked up by police from the Diksha Bhoomi grounds at Chandrapur, Maharashatra, where he was selling books during the annual commemoration of the historic Dalit conversion to Buddism. He was interrogated over two days in a case registered under Section 18 UAPA, which carries punishment of life imprisonment. Though Sathidar was let go, 200 of his books, covering 41 titles, mostly by Dr. Ambedkar and some by Shahid Bhagat Singh, were seized, never to be returned. The police never thought it was ridiculous to suggest that selling such books could constitute conspiracy or abetment of a terrorist act, which is what Sec. 18 of UAPA is about.
Though the case did not reach the stage of a charge-sheet or trial, the police have not, till date, formally informed whether the charge has been withdrawn or not. Sathidar thus, to this day, carries the very real fear of his fictional Kamble, facing trial for abetting suicide through song becoming a real-life Sathidar, facing trial for abetting terrorist acts through books.
Sathidar has had to again face more such book seizures in 2010 and again in 2013. But he has at least been saved the misfortune of the many others who have remained for years in prison on the basis of highly bizarre allegations.
Recently a report from a group of lawyers based in Bastar, Chattisgarh, gave details of numerous such cases, most from Dantewada District. One of the cases was of a 65 year old tribal, Kawasi Rajkumar, shown to be arrested in 2010 with a bow and some arrows and charged under the Arms Act and Explosives Act, who is still in prison awaiting trial. Many more like him continue to be denied bail and rot in jail.
Tarikh pe tarikh in Dantewada Court
The tarikh pe tarikh routine common to practically every court in the country is starkly shown in Court, where the investigating officer goes on asking for adjournments, sometimes for the lack of papers, at other times for illness of a witness. This tale of delay however takes on an altogether new dimension in the Dantewada courts, where almost all adjournments are because the police officers themselves refuse to show up and court summons and warrants are simply ignored for months and years on end.
The Bastar lawyers’ report tells of a case where there are only five witnesses, all police, including two investigating officers, but the trial has yet to commence while accused remain in jail for six years. Court summons have been issued calling these police personnel no less than 30 times since April 2010, but not a single one of them has appeared even once to give evidence.
In another case, Kunjami Posca, a 60 year-old has been waiting in jail for seven years for his trial to complete. The case has been at a total standstill for over four years since May 2010 as the court waits for two witnesses – the post-mortem doctor and the investigating officer. Though both are government officials drawing regular salaries, they blatantly refuse to comply with court summons.
All this continues under the benign gaze of the courts, which do not use any of their powers to haul up the officials and halt deliberately delayed proceedings, often on charges that are clearly unsustainable. It often happens that the chargesheet produced by the police is not read before the trial by any officer of the court – not the judge, not the prosecutor and not even the defence advocate.
In the case described above, where 30 summons have not yet produced a single witness, two of the three accused, Midiyam Lachu and Punem Bhima, are not even mentioned once in the whole charge-sheet. It was only after they had been six years in prison that this was shown to the judge, who promptly scolded the prosecutor, who in turn pointed out that it was the Honourable Court that had framed charges against the two without even bothering to read whether the charge-sheet had anything against them. The advocate for the accused was a court-appointed legal-aid lawyer who too had not cared to look at the charge-sheet.
This Kafkaesque scenario was complete when, despite discovering that the two had been wrongly imprisoned, the court did not have any procedure to even order their release. Since the charges had already been framed over four years ago, the Code of Criminal Procedure did not have any provision for the court discharge the two, so it ordered bail. Since Lachu and Bhima did not have the resources to provide bail, they could not get released. Since the police, who are the witnesses, continue to ignore summons the trial cannot proceed. Since the trial cannot be completed the accused cannot be acquitted, and, despite the judge and every other court officer knowing that there is nothing against them, they continue to remain in jail.
In the film, Tamhane has a scene where the camera remains still as the court closes and descends into emptiness and darkness. Lachu and Bhima are rarely taken from prison to court because the police rarely provide escort guards for court production. But if they did attend court they would very likely be overcome by a similar sense of emptiness and darkness.