The Law as an Ass
Tomorrow Court, Chaitanya Tamhane's multi-lingual film will release in a few cinemas in Mumbai. It comes to us on the back of 18 national and international awards. It is, in every way, an outstanding piece of cinema.
The stark single-word title suggests straight off that this is not going to be your usual courtroom drama. And it isn't. As it unfolds, you realise that Tamhane is saying to himself and us, let's look at this thing called a court as objectively as we can. Let's observe its proceedings from a distance. Don't let's hurry things up. I am doing these almost real-time long takes deliberatley to reflect the pace at which it works. Our cinematographer Mrinal Desai's camera is fixed for the same purpose. His wide shots should help you take in everything that's happening here with total clarity. He's not doing close-ups because I don't want to manipulate your emotions. I want you to think about why this court functions the way it does. Look at these people. They are ordinary members of our society. The judiciary may strike us as impersonal but it is these real people that influence its functioning.
So what's going on here?
The dead body of a sewage worker has been found in a manhole. The investigating police officer is told by 'somebody' that he killed himself under the influence of a song sung recently by the dalit bard Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) that called upon sewage workers to throw themselves into manholes and commit suicide. The police are quick to buy the story. Kamble is arrested and tried on a charge of abetment to suicide, but really for "unlawful activities". The State doesn't encourage resistance and dissent.
The court hearings are dilatory. The tutored prosecution witness doesn't turn up. The police fail to produce an important document. The attorney for the prosecution Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) asks irrelevant questions. The defence attorney Vipin Vora (Vivek Gomber) is unable to stall the drift. His witness is the deceased man's wife (Usha Bane). She states that her husband was habitually drunk and did not possess protective gear. So his death could have been accidental. Tamhane gets consummately naturalistic performances from all his characters, whether they are actors or non-actors, in court or outside. Each one hits exactly the right understated note that the tone of the film requires.
But Court is not just about the judiciary. Tamhane uses Kamble's case to look at our class and caste-riven society. The protagonists' real lives begin where hearings end. Kamble, on the lowest rung of the ladder, is ill. Nutan fulfills her housewifely duties, watches a play with a fiery speech against 'outsiders' and dines out with the family in an unglamorous eatery . Vora shops for wine and cheese in a mall and dines with his family in an up-market restaurant. Sadavarte holidays in a resort with family and friends when the court closes for the summer vacation.
Court draws a light, ironic line under the instinctive hostility of the middle-class towards all forms of resistance and dissent when a po-faced Sadavarte and a monosyllabic Kamble have a brief exchange. Did you sing a song inciting sewage workers to kill themselves in manholes? No. Have you ever sung such a song? No. Have you written such a song? No. Is it possible that you might one day write such a song? Yes. Sadavarte is shocked. "This is unbelievable," he mutters
Court constantly allows the law to expose itself as an ass. Nutan tails the donkey with deadly precision when she reads out the full text of the law that enumerates the "unlawful activities" for which people like Kamble may be tried. Among them is the making of bombs. "Where do bombs come in," Vora asks mildly, hoping to point out the irrelevance of the law to the present case. Nutan responds with the last holdall line of the law: "Or anything of similar nature." QED. Now where will Narayan Kamble go?
Kamble's case has not moved an inch since hearings began, but the court breaks for the summer vacation anyway. It is here that Tamhane's otherwise firm command over pace falters. The judge's holiday, although meant to undercut the drama of the court door closing, and give us a glimpse of his private life, is a tad too long drawn-out.
A few years ago, a High Court judge calculated that there were over three crore cases pending in the Indian law courts. See Court and you'll know why.
Published On : 15-04-2015