- Pushing things to an extremeThe Thin Edge – Ruchir Joshi
At some point while watching Chaitanya Tamhane’s film Court, I actually started to laugh silently with joy. This could be seen as somewhat perverse, for the themes and the story of the movie are anything but joyous, and the world it creates, or rather, depicts with precision, is a grim nightmare and one fully deserving of the oft misused label, Kafkaesque. My elation, then, stemmed from the realization that one was watching a truly beautiful work of cinema, unpretentious film-making that was at the same time wrought with supreme artistry, a fiercely minimalistic work that was, nevertheless, fiercely gripping. The joy and disbelief were further amplified by the fact that this incredible richness and quality belonged to a contemporary Indian film – a pleasure too rarely granted to us local cinephiles. To put that differently – and to add to it – this extreme measure of happiness also came about because this felt like a quintessentially Indian film, portraying a typically Indian reality; it’s not that some similar story couldn’t unfold in Nigeria or Mexico, just not this exact story; it’s not that the film doesn’t owe stylistic debts to great film-makers from Iran to Taiwan, it’s that it pays off those debts while taking rightful possession of a mix that’s ultimately very original.
The notes of the story are laid out very quickly, like an alaap from some gharana that dictates clarity and simplicity at the beginning of a raga. Narayan Kamble, a Dalit folk-poet in his mid-60s, teaches poor children in the slums of Bombay and sings political poetry at Dalit and working class meetings and processions. Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar, an activist in real life) is arrested while on stage at one such performance. The charge is that he has abetted the suicide of a sewage-cleaner because in one of his songs he apparently exhorted the cleaners, singing that the only way to freedom was for them to kill themselves. According to the police and prosecution, a sewerage worker was seen attending one of Kamble’s performances a day before he was found dead inside a sewer, presumably a suicide, therefore making Kamble directly responsible for the man’s death. The narrative spine of the film is the series of sessions court hearings around this case. The main characters in the film are Kamble, his defence lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), the public prosecutor Nutan (surname unclear; played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) and the judge, Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi).
The thing you hardly notice about the film (till you do) is that it trips ceaselessly between different kinds of Marathi, different registers of Hindi and English, and (only one kind of) Gujarati, exactly as you might encounter across a day in Bombay. In the cinematic arts, sub-titling has long been the step-daughter’s step-daughter, but here it is a minor triumph, bringing us the weave of all the Bombay patois, all its legal and classist and casteist jargon save what is spoken in English. In a very deft, understated way these knots of language are brought up in the scenes themselves – does the English-speaking Gujarati lawyer understand what a witness is saying in Marathi? Does the activist-poet prefer the proceedings to be in Hindi or Marathi? How well does the dead cleaner’s wife speak Hindi, she, who, at one point, seems stripped of all language and articulation?
All this, however, comes later. Where the film establishes its credentials is the first scene in the first, chaotic, sessions court. The grimy wall behind the judges with two small photographs of great men of the past, the layer of the bench and clerks, the flimsy moat of the wooden railing, the dirty brown lecterns, as if there forever, and, at them, advocates replacing one another as petty cases are shuffled through the thick aspic of jurisprudical ennui. With a ‘normal’, ‘arty’ film-director you’d expect several cuts, zany changes of angle, tracks, cranes, but here you get none of that and it wrong-foots your expectations, it brings you up short and it also prepares you for what follows.
Early in the film we see Kamble singing on a stage, declaiming a song in a strong voice, moving in and out of speech, egging on his fellow singers in a question-answer exchange. After a quiet beginning, this comes like a Brechtian slap in your face. Again, you expect the film will be punctuated by many such performances, you expect the songs to also feature on the background soundtrack. None of this happens. Kamble’s public performances, like everything else in the film, are used sparingly. From this moment of startling Brechtian ‘ verfremdungseffekt‘, alienating-effect, the viewer is shifted and dumped unceremoniously into the theatre of the courtroom, which is a Theatre of the Absurd, the slowness of the repetitious proceedings reminding one of the Italian Arte Povera theatre. Nothing, no small change, is conceded to the fear of boring the audience, or the impulse to entertain, to ‘keep the story moving’.
The power of all great work comes from pushing things to an extreme, fearlessly and without compromise. Here, Tamhane sets out his stall, first of all with his camera. If so many other Indian claimants to art cinema auteur-dom catatonically zap about their points of view, Tamhane does the opposite: the camera rarely moves, whatever happens takes place within an unrelentingly still frame, without any tight close-ups whatsoever, forcing you to look and experience without recourse to distraction or relief. This is, in turn, organic to the script and the story. In the worst arty cinema, a static camera with long, interminable takes tends to capture dated, obscure or static ideas, here the camera is still but what’s happening in the frame is anything but static, and the long takes are rewarded by a simultaneous, asymmetrical unfolding of events, character and even, dare I say, political analysis. In a lot of Indian ‘serious’ cinema there is now a skitishness about staying still, an avoidance of Robert Bresson‘s great tenet: ‘stay in one place, dig deep’. Whether he knows Bresson’s advice or not, Tamhane heeds it, which yields wonderful results for both himself and his audience.
Around the succeeding dates in court are scenes to do with each of the main characters except Kamble himself. These scenes are narrative oxbow lakes, plot cul-de-sacs, that any standard, workshopping Script Doctor would immediately urge the writer to throw out. Instead, the team that has made Court relishes these, again, without any arty fetishization. Kamble’s lawyer, Vora, has lunch with his squabbling parents. Nutan, the government prosecutor, picks up her son from school. Vora goes to a bar with friends and a singer begins a Brazilian song, you don’t hear what Vora and his friends are saying, the song takes over, cut back to court the next day. Nutan makes dinner for her family in a tiny kitchen, phone crooked in her neck, advising a friend on her daughter’s impending divorce; Nutan goes to the theatre with her family, outside there is a poster for Ghashiram Kotwal, inside there is a very different kind of Marathi comedy on offer. By themselves the scenes work no mainstream story-gears, but in the film they act like a pickle or a chutney in a diverse thali: when these characters (all superbly acted) return to the fray in court you see them differently, their taste has altered, they are more rounded as human beings and therefore trickier to love, harder to hate.
At some point, without drama or warning, the film scalpels into one of the central debates of our society – “There are no explosives, there are no guns here, so where is the terrorism?” Or, is terrorism and sedition to be defined by the whims, prejudices and paranoias of the ill-educated, small-eyed, mid-level authorities of our country? Despite the multi-layered complexities, the film purloins your anger and accumulates it as it proceeds. Kamble doesn’t appear in most of the scenes, but like strong chilli that’s been cooked into a meal, he never goes away either. Forged rock hard in the fires of continuous outrages, when he appears on screen, he troubles you, pokes you hard in the gut, flavours everything you see and hear. The dead sewage-cleaner, him who we never see, also becomes a vivid presence through his monosyllabic wife. In a normal film, at some point you usually sense the end approaching, but not here. You’re drawn in by the stillness of the frame, trapped by the quiet, unending macabre violence of what takes place within it, trapped not least by how implicated you yourself are in this violence. By the time the film ends, like Narayan Kamble you’ve given up the idea of any easy release, you’re girded up for the long haul of the fight against prejudice. The film, like so many court cases, has a false ending, a feint at a well-nigh perfect closure, but Tamhane and his fellow writers are too good to settle for that. Throughout this tragic story there are moments where you hold your stomach and roar with laughter. The films leaves you, not with some pompous grand finale, but with one such moment of transcendent absurdity, and therein lies the last great gift it gives you.
Coming out of the show with your 15 fellow viewers, in the meta-film that is life, you realize you’ve watched the one show available of this movie, in the one far-flung cinema in a city that would have once celebrated this brilliant piece of cinematic art.