Director: Chaitanya Tamhane
Cast: Vira Sathidar, Vivek Gomber and Gaetanjali Kulkarni
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: March 25th
“If I were only fact based… the book of books then, in literature, would be the Manhattan phone directory. Four million entries, everything correct… and I do not know: do they dream at night? Does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night?”
A single pebble of brilliance extracted from the vast quarry of offbeat wisdom that is Werner Herzog’s mind, his dwellings on the private life of “Mr. Jonathan Smith” has long been a definitive trait in his approach to documentary filmmaking. Whether choosing to analyse a society, a system, or a historical event, Herzog tends to veer away from observing the bigger picture, favouring instead the inhabitants and their psyches. He does not want to look at the phonebook, which is Manhattan as a statistic. He wants to look at how those in the phonebook think, and how each unique citizen collectively makes the city move in the direction that it is going.
This is a vision, which can be aligned to the idea behind Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s feature-length debut, Court, a stellar piece of cinema, and an equally fascinating critique on the concept of neutrality. Fixating upon one case in one lower court in Mumbai, the aim of Tamhane is to reveal a larger, systematic imbalance in the judicial system, which at its roots is based on the prejudice of individuals, collectively pushing the flawed and partial institute forward.
The premise is simple: an elderly political poet is arrested during an anti-nationalist demonstration. Accused of inciting a sewage worker into committing suicide by way of a series of provocative lyrics at a concert a few weeks before, he is put on trial and forced to justify himself to a court which might be persecuting him more due to his beliefs, and less because of this one specific act, which might not have happened in actuality.
Broken up into five stories; the case, the accused, his solicitor, the prosecuting attorney and the judge, Tamhane gives each character a moment to speak in the court of law. Then, once they have spoken formally, he travels into their private lives, wherein he uncovers samples of evidence to explain why they say this, believe that, or act in one particular way. Be they intensely devoted to a political cause, or completely divorced from it once having clocked out of work, each minor detail in their personal life helps to explain why the institute, in which they exist, functions as we see it.
Comical in its fixation on mundane and innocent non-stories, such as holidays, preferred forms of entertainment, beverages consumed, and means of handling children, the storyline here becomes intensely enjoyable by way of its obsession with bland, everyday actions. These small details add up to shape the person, and the people collectively shape the court, and whether it is the person, or the institution, none are as impartial as they proclaim to be.
Though a lengthy piece of work, there is never a dull moment here, because the characters we trail after are so well-crafted, to the extent that you might forget that this is a work of fiction. They are like the person who trips on the sidewalk in public, and desperately attempts to act as if nothing has happened. They are intensely flawed, but adamant to convince you otherwise, and for such a reason, viewers can relate to them. That is a rare thing when it comes to the courtroom dramas, since it is a genre that strives to convince us of a lawyer, or judge’s otherworldliness. Hence, when you realise that those operating the institution are not demi-Gods, but essentially you and me, then instinctively you understand why the court is a shambles.