That Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court uses the cinéma vérité approach is not saying much. It uses it in the most unique ways possible. The camera is just there like an immovable object but the magic here is that it is also capturing an immovable entity. The courtrooms of India are where files gather dust, people grow old and things are far from copacetic. The hearings may seem like they last a lifetime but they don’t uncover new details. Tamhane trains the camera at a single image and forces us to observe. The camera doesn’t follow anyone. Even inside the car or the bus it just stays there. The film seemingly doesn’t go anywhere because the things it is observing are not going anywhere. Court becomes…the court.
The only scene (I think) where the camera moves (or follows someone) is during the scene in the bar with Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) and his friends. That’s another angle Tamhane wishes to focus on. It is almost just there as if to suggest that only for the upwardly mobile life is, well, mobile. The story not only tracks the case of Narayan Kamble – charged with abetment of suicide – but also the background of the people involved. There is subtle commentary on class issues by Tamhane in a number of places. Vinay Vora is Kamble’s lawyer, a liberal Gujarati whose parents own a whole apartment building in Mumbai and has a sister living abroad. For all its inadequacies, Vora has some amount of respect for the legal profession and judicial system. He always bows towards the judge at the beginning and at the end of every hearing. He prefers to engage professionally with the police officer when he visits the station for the first time to find out about the charges and other details. He questions laws that were written in the 19th century and how they can be blindly applied in this age. We find out gradually that his is not just a professional obligation but also an ideological one for him personally. His client himself is actively involved in the causes of Dalits. The public prosecutor played by Geetanjali Kulkarni is a different story. She’s not someone that bothers with formalities in the courtroom. For her it’s just work that pays and nothing more. She plays by the book for her arguments always go in the tune of – “but the law is there.” She even insists she’ll conduct her arguments only in Marathi. We get a scene with her indulging in light banter with her colleagues about judges and court proceedings. The most important thing is to move on because she has bigger things to worry about. Hers is a typical middle class family. She travels by train (Vora drives a car) indulging in small talk with fellow passengers, picks up her kid, cooks and serves food for her husband and children. An idea of outing for her family includes lunch at a small restaurant and a Marathi play espousing the messages similar to that of Raj Thackeray. Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi) has his own little story. Yet his role is enriched just enough in the scene where he postpones the hearing of a case because the lady has come to the court wearing a sleeveless top. The noteworthy detail here is the name of the accused.
Court is captivating not just because of the realistic portrayal of courtroom drama (or lack thereof) but also thanks to its detailing of the prejudices of every individual in their personal lives and how it impacts the jobs they are entrusted with. It maybe in the calm and measured way Vora deals with his nitpicking family but is also passionate enough to bring his work home. Or in how the public prosecutor leaves her work behind once she steps out of the gates of the court and only worries about her husband’s health and her children’s education. It’s also in how the judge deals with issues outside. He’s happy doling out unsolicited advice steeped in blind faith and swatting the nearest fly that he could get his hands on. We in India aren’t quite used to cinema like this all that often and in Court we get a disturbing yet funny tale of a drop in an ocean. We can only imagine what the rest of it feels like (and to help us Tamhane always lingers in the hearings an extra bit longer as they call out the next case). No wonder Vinay Vora’s grocery basket is dominated by ice cream, cheese and alcohol.