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Court- Lion of the Future Award Winner Venice IFF

Thursday 15 January 2015, by Judy Harris

In Chaitanya Tamhane’s impressive debut Court the mounting tension and increasing urgency of so many legal dramas are replaced by a beautiful but melancholic futility. The film meanders through the endless legal battles which the Indian state has brought against Narayan Kemble, a poet who dares to sing about oppression and the possibility of resistance. Tamhane subtly depicts the ideologically charged mechanisms of the Indian legal system. However this is no farcical critique; the trial is presented as a quagmire rather than a circus.

Whilst wading through the circuitous bureaucracy of Kemble’s case we are made privy to the lives of the central figures of the trial- the bourgeois defense lawyer, the careerist prosecutor, the superstitious judge, the steadfast radical and the wife of a deceased sewage worker whose death Kemble is accused of inciting. We catch them unawares as they ride the train, we arrive in the middle of dinner, or halfway through a conversation and we are left to piece together their relationships, frustrations and ambitions. Despite the frequency of their presence on screen the characters exist at the margins of the film, often set to the side of the frame. Its centre feels perpetually out of reach, silent and invisible, vacant even, perhaps implying the unrepresentable authority of the law itself.

Throughout the case the spectre of British colonialism looms large. We observe the invocation of a Victorian law from 1876 and the ceaseless authority of written language. We also see the nonchalance and haphazardness of the proceedings. Statements are made and withdrawn. Witnesses fail to attend. Documents go missing. Cases are delayed due to improper attire. Rational beliefs, religious traditions and folk superstitions refuse to supersede each other. Yet the film is not a mockery of an ersatz legal system which has been improperly and unprofessionally implemented, thereby lacking the authority of the British original. Court critiques the very concept of a trial, revealing not only the use of the law as a political and ideological weapon, but as an imperfect instrument which exists within a system which is, by its very nature, far removed from the daily struggles and systemic injustices faced by the mass population.

Radical poets can only dream of the kind of influence that Kemble is accused of, a dream which filmmakers, engulfed in their own quagmire of industrial production and distribution, are even further removed from. In one of the final scenes the day’s session ends, the room is emptied and the lights are switched off as the court adjourns for the summer break. Yet the scene continues and the camera refuses to leave; it is shut into the darkened room, a mute witness. The shot encapsulates Tamhane’s film at its most powerful- silent, beautiful and relentless.

Court
Dir. Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014

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