Monday, July 13, 2015

In his new narrative film, COURT, Chaitanya Tamhane explores India's idea of "justice"

The first shock of COURT -- the new Indian film that has its U.S. theatrical premiere this week at New York City's Film Forum -- comes from the riot of color that greets your eyes: rich, varied and beautiful. The we meet one of our main characters, an elderly teacher/performer/poet whom we first encounter in his teaching mode and then performing al fresco a poem about the times in which we live. This is India, but from the sound of things -- what our boy is railing against -- it might as well be right here in the good old US of A. Then the event occurs that sets the movie in motion, as police crack down on what is a remarkably peaceful, even dignified protest, arresting our performer in the process.

Though he finds some humor in the goings-on, the writer/director of Court, Chaitanya Tamhane (pictured at left), whose first full-length film this is, has given us less a satire, I think, than a sadly realistic look at what passes for justice in India today. From the police, who are clearly acting on orders from their superiors (though no higher-ups are named or shown, except perhaps by certain portraits hanging on the wall) to the chief prosecutor to the somewhat lazy and not-very-intelligent judge, it is clear from almost the first that this is a set up and railroaded job.

Yet none of this can be baldly stated -- by either the filmmaker or his besieged hero, the defense attorney (a fine performance by Vivek Gomber, above). Thanks most likely to the country's heritage of colonialism, decorum, along with way too many outdated laws from that British rule, must be preserved.

We learn a few of these laws along with decorum -- the judge (Pradeep Joshi, in background, below) refuses to hear one woman's case because she wears a sleeveless dress to court) -- via the public prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni, above), whose main interest is getting this case over with and her career in higher gear.

The filmmaker takes us away from court as often as he lets us in: investigating the family of the man his client is accused of inducing-into-suicide (yes!) via his political rabble-rousing; into the family life of both the defense and prosecuting attorney; and finally allowing us to meet the wife of the dead man at the center of it all.

The scene in which our hero simply drives the widow and her children to their home speaks volumes about class differences in India. Mr.Tamhane and his cinematographer (Mrinal Desai) often use a stationary camera to capture their scenes, as characters move in and out of the frame very effectively.  (This also allows for the movie's most violent scene to take place -- charmingly and amusingly -- off-camera.)

The filmmaker's initial ending uses that stationary camera again to fine advantage, leaving us -- and Indian justice -- in darkness, while his actual finale offers a little too heavy-handedly a mash-up of a country in which tradition & modernity, magical thinking & science, raw youth & grizzled stupidity constantly lock horns.  And, as in so many of the world's so-called democracies today, power finds a way to stymie protest every time.

Court, from Zeitgeist Films -- in several different languages, including English, all with English subtitles -- and running a long but never boring 116 minutes, opens this Wednesday at NYC's Film Forum and next Friday in Chicago and Santa Fe. In the weeks and month to come, it will play another dozen cities throughout the country. For all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

Note: Geetanjali Kulkarni will appear in person 
at the 7pm show at Film Forum on opening night, 
Wednesday, July 15.

No comments: