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Chaitanya Tamhane’s feature debut, Court, tells the story of a 65-year-old “people’s poet” who is up in court on charges of having incited the suicide of a sewer worker.

Narayan Kamble is a grey-haired firebrand who sings angry songs about the state of the world and his beloved India, and how the love of money is destroying spiritual values. Apparently, he has sung a song strongly advocating that sewer workers should kill themselves. It must have been a catchy tune and/or forceful lyrically because two days later a man did just that. Was the death suicide? Was the song ever even sung? – that’s what the court case is meant to ascertain.

While Tamhane gently floats the idea that what Kamble is really on trial for is being a royal pain in the ass in a country where political and social dissent is increasingly frowned on, he’s actually not particularly interested in this refusnik as a person or as a story. He’s much more concerned with the three legals involved in the case – defence lawyer Vinay Vora, public prosecutor Nutan and presiding judge Sadavarte.

In three skilfully sketched portraits we meet and get to know more about Vinay (Vivek Gomber), the idealist liberal whose parents worry about when he’s going to settle down and who seems to have rejected much of their traditional way of life.

Public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), the woman who combines a legal career with a more traditional housewife role, coming home from the court to prepare dinner for her husband and children, who lift not a finger to help her.

And Judge Sadvarte (Pradeep Joshi), who leads a benignly patriarchal life out of court as well as in it, taking family groups away on organised holidays when he’s not on the bench.

A policeman with Kamble, the accused
A policeman with Kamble, the accused

In each case traditional India sits alongside something more recognisably western – Vinay shops at a supermarket full of cold cabinets, buys cheese and bottled water, Nutan talks multi-grain flour and olive oil on the bus on the way home, Sadavarte discusses therapists and ADHD with one of the parents at the summer camp.

They are affectionate portraits, of people who easily integrate the old with the new, and complement Tamhane’s portrait of the legal system, recognisably British in origin, where an approximation of justice is handed out in courtrooms full of mismatched chairs, with bits of paper tacked on the walls and a mix-and-match pragmatism jostles with high legal principle.

Everyday life, in other words, all caught with documentary simplicity and style. Tamhane’s camera doesn’t move unless necessary, but he has an eye for elegant composition and the beauty of the ragged everyday.

Made in 2014, before Donald Trump, it prefigures some of those globalist/populist tensions in its occasional digressions – a trip to the theatre where a speech by an actor against foreigners draws prolonged enthusiastic applause from the audience, Vinay getting attacked in the street for apparently having insulted ethnic patriots.

Tamhane’s loose, accidental-seeming style of shooting is deceptive. He spent six months getting his casting right, and then each scene was shot many, many times, or so Geetanjali Kulkarni has said in interview.

The results speak for themselves – a film that’s deceptively easy-going, proceeding in whispers rather than shouts.

A rack of awards went Tamhane’s way for this debut and he ended up being paired with Alfonso Cuarón in a mentoring scheme. One of the results of that was his follow-up to Court, 2020’s The Disciple, the story of a traditional Indian musician and his difficult road to the mastery of his art. It’s a lot more ambitious than Court, but has in common with it Tamhane’s technique of telling one story while more obviously telling another. Tamhane would probably be quite good at the three-card trick.

Court – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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