India’s judicial system comes under review in Court

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      Starring Vivek Gomber and Vira Sathidar. In English, Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.

      India’s judicial system comes under review in Court, a film that keeps a wary, and therefore amusingly light, distance from its subject.

      When we meet 65-year-old singer-poet Narayan Kamble (played by real-life activist Vira Sathidar, who’s actually a decade younger) he’s in a shabby Mumbai courtyard, delivering an increasingly angry rant about the system. So it’s no big surprise when the police drag him off the stage.

      What is weird is that they choose to charge him for musical irresponsibility, insisting that one little ditty incited a sewer worker to commit suicide. There is zero evidence that the guy didn’t die by accident in his dangerous job, let alone that he heard Kamble’s concert, or that the program contained such a song. The movie doesn’t underline it, but both men are from bottom castes, making their own voices indistinct, at best, to the law.

      To the bard’s semirescue comes Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, who also helped produce the film), a young trial lawyer from an upper-crust background—the kind who listens to jazz, shops at western delis, and is bugged by his wealthy parents about why he’s still single. He’s something of a crusader, although not to the point of very much discomfort on his own part. He’s up against a public prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) who’s a proletarian striver little interested in legal theories. She follows the letter of the law, even when it’s ancient, British-colonial law, without much imagination or compassion. Kamble’s health is fading in jail as court dates keep getting postponed and witnesses fail to show up or are patently lying. But bail isn’t even considered.

      What we see here of Indian jurisprudence is not inspiring, with police shuffling in and out of court pursuing their own agendas, and a judge (Pradeep Joshi) so pedantic he refuses to hear testimony from a woman because she’s wearing a sleeveless dress in court. He’s not immune to common sense, however, and the defence is forced to keep taking tiny bites out of the state’s feeble case.

      The two-hour Court is a remarkable achievement for first-time writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane, only 28 but with a clear-eyed view of class structure and character details. He favours tripod-fixed, wide-angle shots that pull a lot of peripheral information into the story. Sometimes the scenes go on longer than they strictly need to, or important action happens just outside the frame. At other points, he drops the plot and follows the participants home (or, in the judge’s case, during a curious coda, on vacation) to allow both comedy and social context.

      To Tamhane, they appear to be pretty much the same thing.