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‘Court’ – Class and caste in impressive and much garlanded first feature film

‘Court’ – Class and caste in impressive and much garlanded first feature film

March 26 2016

Film that won in Venice and has 16 international awards to its name hits the UK and debut fiction feature director talks to us about its inspirations…

THIS IS MUMBAI (or Bombay) as you’ve probably never seen it before, on the large screen.

Court” which is released this week in selected theatres in the UK, is a gem and if you’re interested in class, and caste in India, this is really not to be missed.

But forget all that for a moment and its huge number of awards – it is also a likeable and enjoyable film: funny, insightful and a breeze to watch. It isn’t taxing in that way you might expect.

It’s not heavy or political or screaming injustice (though at its heart it does a have a strong social conscience and what makes the film not just a piece of entertainment). Made in five languages with English among them, it feels, at times, a little like a behind-the-scenes-TV documentary.

Many non-professional actors appear in Court including Vira Sathidar (r) who plays the accused Dalit singer Narayan Kamble

The basic story is simple enough: a Dalit singer/activist is charged with aiding and abetting a suicide – not directly – no, but through his singing at an open air concert.

It is as absurd as it sounds, but an arcane law allows the police and the state to prosecute the singer for essentially ‘incitement’ of a sort and the court case is, as a consequence, both ridiculous and funny.

Not that anyone takes the law lightly as the punishment for this offence is severe and the state sees the charge as wholly necessary and legitimate.

“I had seen a lower court,” said director-writer Chaitanya Tamhane, speaking to when the film premiered in the UK at the London Film Festival in 2014. “And it really interested me. It was slightly chaotic and they were not the greatest lawyers there. They were reading long technical passages, and documents had been mislaid, and you could not hear it all properly – even if you were fighting the case. I had written the script after a year of interviews and research.”

The Mumbai court scenes provide the essential backdrop and Tamhane built a set to resemble a real courtroom. Having observed a civil case in India, it looks very authentic and that sense of a crumbling justice system, not really in tune with modern times and sensibilities does hit home very effectively.

Tamhane, who is in his 20s, had written a first draft of “Court” before seeing veteran director Anand Patwardhan’s magisterial “Jai Bhim Comrade” (2011), a three-hour documentary film about the struggles and difficulties of the Dalit Movemement in Maharastra (the state where Mumbai is located). Shot over a period of 14 years, it begins too with a suicide of the poet-singer-activist and friend of Patwardhan, Vilas Ghogre. Internationally acclaimed, some have seen Patwardhan’s film as one of the most compelling and comprehensive accounts of the Dalit movement in the late 20th and early 21st century in the state.

Tamhane mines a similar milieu, but with less overt politics and less of the polemicist wielding a camera.

“It was through ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ that I discovered this whole movement and just happened upon it and its legacy,” revealed Tamhane to

“I was insulated from it, being from a middle class family, and it was a revelation for me.”

In many ways, “Court” is a (fictional) companion piece to some of the issues facing the downtrodden and discriminated castes in India.

Tamhane is subtle and intelligent in his approach and in showing the contrasting lifestyles of the two lawyers, well illustrates the gulf between them and neatly subverts the obvious sympathies.

Public prosecutor is Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), a sincere and honest woman, who dispenses her duty with diligence and respect for the law as it is in statute book. Educated but far from wealthy, she is also shown as a hard-working career woman/mother, who still has to perform domestic duties to a high standard to maintain good relations with all.

Director Chaitanya Tamhane (l) and producer-actor Vivek Gomber at the London Film Festival 2014

Opposite her and defending the accused is the rather more urbane, wealthy, and sophisticated Vinay (Vivek Gomber), who quickly appreciates the absurdity of the case and the injustice of trying a man for crime that really shouldn’t be. In effect, the real trial for him and for us is – should the accused be allowed to sing and protest about injustice and discrimination and mobilise thought and opinion against those who endorse and support it. In a democracy the answer is obvious.

The Indian state, perhaps even a little inadvertently (to be kind), very firmly hands the power to those who want to keep things as they are and lean on old laws to maintain the status quo.

Producer and actor Vivek Gomber told during the same interview: “Life is really stranger than fiction.

“It’s not that controversial a film, the city of Mumbai is responsible for these characters. It’s such a diverse city with such a disparity.”

Gomber, who is mostly based in Singapore, said he had first come across Tamhane as a Mumbai playwright (Tamhana had enjoyed critical success in his home city with “Grey Elephants in Denmark”) and the two had hit it off.

Gomber, whose mother is based in India and works in the judiciary, helped to secure the finance as well investing himself in the production.

“My entire confidence and trust in Chaitanya came through his play in the rehearsal room,” revealed Gomber. Tamhane had made only one fictional short before “Court” and a feature length documentary, “Four Step Plan” (2006) about plagarism in Indian cinema, other than that his only creative experience had been in Mumbai theatre…

If and when you see the film you will realise Gomber made a superb judgement call.

*’Court’ on limited release in the UK from March 25…

London Film Festival 2014 review

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture