Article by Sarthak Sharma
Student of OP Jindal Global Law School, Haryana
Debutant director Chaitanya Tamhane’s 2014 drama ‘Court’ essentially portrays the malaise of a modernizing urban India and its professional class. Set amidst the sprawling city of Mumbai, the movie revolves around the trial of Dalit activist Narayan Kamble. His case is fought by Vinay Vora, a young, affluent lawyer, and human rights champion, against the middle-aged public prosecutor Nutan. The hearing takes place in the court of veteran Judge Sadavarte, in the Sessions Court of Mumbai. As the case drags on, the movie takes us inside the personal lives of the two lawyers, and we play fly-on-the-wall while witnessing the functioning of professionals in an urban-middle-class society of a modernizing India.
The movie takes place outside the courtroom, to reason out the operatives of the characters inside it, as revealed by the director Tamhane, that his primary focus was the personal lives of the characters, the case was just a by-product. The characters belong to different socio-economic classes and lead parallel lives fundamentally different from one another, as noted by Drishadwati Bargi in her critique. They have their own malaises with the society around them, and the movie portrays them throughout the screen-time, beginning with the defence attorney Vinay, moving onto the prosecutor Nutan, and culminating with the Judge Sadavarte.
Defence Lawyer Vinay is a progressive modernist who believes in social justice but struggles with his personal life. Played by Vivek Gomber, he is depicted as belonging to a well-off nuclear family residing in a decent suburban residential society in Mumbai. He advocates human rights and specialises in criminal law, often taking up the cases of Dalit activists stuck in the circle of being wrongfully remanded, based on fabricated charges and made-up accusations. A representation of the upper-middle class socio-economic strata he belongs to, Vinay has a societal conscience and an open-mindedness reflected in his views, as observed by Stephen Holden in his review. Throughout the film, Vinay seems to have a superiority complex and carries a sense of privilege with his words and actions. His parents are just like any other Gujrati parents, warm and welcoming to guests, fluent in conversation and fixated on their son’s marriage. This often causes tensions with Vinay, as he feels embarrassed when they quiz his friend Subodh about Vinay’s romantic exploits, citing that he barely converses with them regarding issues like this. He seems to have an issue with orthodoxy and traditionalism, reflected in his strained relationship with his parents. He prefers being alone, goes grocery shopping in an upscale store, and does not even bother checking the price-tags before buying western cheese and imported alcohol. His taste in music is also westernized, listening to classical jazz in solitude in his car. He goes to nightclubs with his other bourgeoise companions to unwind and drinks himself to sleep. The sense of privilege and friction with the system around him is evident in the courtroom. While his colleagues converse in either Marathi or Hindi, he presents his case and arguments solely in English, even requesting the prosecutor Nutan to cross-examine the accused in either Hindi or English. He often points towards the Victorian laws and fundamentals upon which the Indian Judicial System is based as being obsolete and irrelevant in the contemporary context, becoming a victim when a cultural sect gets offended over his unintentional critique of their practices being regressive. This leads to him being assaulted and breaking down in tears. The fact that he is young, single, unsettled, and privileged gives him the luxury to try and spark a change in the system. He doesn’t hesitate in being charitable, even paying the whole amount for the bail of his client Kamble. He might’ve landed a much better paying job, given his list of privileges, but he still chose to fight for the rights of the oppressed. Thus, with a vision for a modernized urban India, Vinay is stuck in a transitional phase.
His adversary public prosecutor Nutan (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) is a middle-aged wife and mother, who belongs to the lower-middle-class socio-economic strata. Her life is juxtaposed with personal and professional duties, with no time for herself except during the commute. She travels through the public transport, picks up her son from the creche, and goes home to masterfully play the role of a homemaker. She prepares for her case in the time she has left, i.e., at the night. On the days she is not balancing home and work, she goes out with her family to have lunch at a decent family restaurant and watch plays with a far right-wing plot and a xenophobic message, according to Adam Kuruvilla in his review. Unlike Vinay, she prefers speaking primarily in Marathi and her malaise with the society lies in being frustrated of her repetitious life and rejection of modern ideals of social justice. The scene where she monotonously recites a law in its length in English and then reverts back to Marathi and while talking to her colleagues, her confession hoping for the accused getting maximum punishment, shows that she doesn’t care whether the charges are logical or the person accused is a person at all, it’s just another face and another case for her. This might be because she regards her profession as nothing more than a daytime job, and the burden of responsibilities doesn’t provide her the kind of luxury Vinay has to vouch for justice and social change.
Judge Sadavarte plays a crucial role, as the veteran who is only concerned with laws being literally upheld and procedures being followed. Actor Pradeep Joshi as Sadavarte remains neutral throughout but doesn’t provide any observations or points of view. Held in high regard by his colleagues, he often gets relegated to a spectator to the case rather than an arbitrator, but seldom exercises his discretionary powers to uphold archaic laws and court’s codes of conduct. In the very end of the movie, he is shown to be enjoying a family trip and being much more vocal. His malaise with the modernizing society lies in his fixation with holding on to tradition and not being flexible. Director Tamhane observed that law is not absolute, rather it depends on subjective interpretation, and Satavarte being a traditionalist (he believed in numerology and gemstones’ powers) might be the reason for him being a staunch defender of ‘archaic’ Victorian legislations.
The film employs its cinematography and dry humour to illustrate the state of Indian Judiciary. Namrata Joshi from Outlook, states in her review that the use of satire and black humour was instrumental to paint a picture of as well as illustrate an Indian court for the Indian audience. The non-motion camera work, the elongated and stretched scenes try to instil the sentiment of monotony and convey the sluggishness of the Judicial system. Conditioned to watching high stake cases with fiery argumentation and intense background music, the Indian audience would’ve found ‘Court’ a tad bit different from a usual courtroom drama, but the portrayal of the human side of the lawyers, where they come from, why they say what they say was a necessity to show, observes Menaka Rao.
The professional class of lawyers and judges are painted against the same backdrop of contemporary India, a modernizing urban society of Mumbai to observe their malaises. It is noticeable that the stark difference in the lifestyles of the characters and their socio-economic backgrounds determine how they interpret a case, as well as the laws. This is portrayed skilfully well by director Tamhane and succeeds in implanting a lasting image in the viewer’s minds of the reality of the drama that unfolds within the courtroom, and the humane side of the champions of justice.