Justice Delayed: Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court

A Review of Court by Ratik Asokan

“The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world—in its dramatic as well as its quiet times—we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?”

The Embassy Of Cambodia, Zadie Smith

Court, Chaintaya Tamhane’s debut feature film, is haunted by an absent hero. Billed as a procedural drama, Court is ostensibly about the trial of Narayan Kamble, a Dalit (untouchable) folk-poet wrongfully convicted, released, and then wrongfully reconvicted for abetting a sewage worker’s suicide. In the film’s opening scenes, Tamhane deftly introduces his cast of characters: the folk-poet, Kamble; an accomplished activist-lawyer who will defend the poet; a policeman invested in arresting him; the opposing government attorney; and a tired judge. Tamhane then proceeds to banish his protagonist from the film.

As his case suffers one absurd delay after another, as Mumbai’s self-important Chekhovian bureaucrats argue over arcane Victorian laws, as dubious witnesses disappear and withdraw their statements, Kamble remains largely off-screen—either behind bars or in the jail’s medical center. In fact, early in the film, director Tamhane seems to lose interest in the legal dilemma he has constructed. Fed up with the case’s halting progress, he follows Vinay Vora (Kamble’s lawyer), Sharmila Pawar (the government attorney) and Judge Sadavarte back to their homes, to witness the tender truths and uncertainties of their lives, and Court becomes a collection of domestic narratives. Kamble returns for a brief cameo in the film’s closing section. But he is soon arrested again and consequently shunted off-screen. His screen time in the film’s trailer is comparable to his screen time in the film.

So why is Court’s marginalized protagonist given so little screen time?

On one level, Tamhane is simply playing against viewer expectations. Here is a courtroom tragedy that is really a courtroom comedy, a political film that is more domestic than political, a grand drama that is dismantled in gentle bathos. But this subversion is only half the story. Tamhane seems to be making a deeper political point—one woven into aesthetics of his film.

After Tamhane introduces his characters and establishes his dilemma very early in the film, nothing much happens. Kamble’s trial—beleaguered by scheduling issues and bureaucratic mix-ups—drags on and by the end remains unresolved. In interviews, Tamhane has conveyed his admiration for playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco, and their work certainly informs Court. Instead of cobbling a narrative arc out of legal procedure (i.e., a procedural drama) he has crafted an almost absurdist film that dramatizes the lack of drama, that reveals how bureaucracy prevents progress (on which drama is contingent) from happening. Court is not a thrilling procedural drama “about” bureaucracy. Rather, Court is procedural comedy that recreates—and embodies—the convoluted, monotonous and ultimately defeating experience of bureaucracy.

And these bureaucratic delays, these delays that keep the aging, ailing Kamble in jail, are precisely what prevent him from having any screen time.

Kamble, the marginalized folk-poet and Court’s ostensible hero, is the bureaucracy’s real casualty. For two hours, he is fought over in court, mulled over in private—in short, he is the object of our attention. But we are dealing with an enigma—a political or politicized phantom. We lose him to a tangle of red tape. Bureaucracy—the spanner that prevents courts from operating—doubles as the haze that hides the marginalized.

And who is left when we lose the marginalized character? The middle class. For at some point, the viewer realizes that Court is not a Dalit drama but a middle-class black comedy. And this realization sounds the film’s greatest note of tragedy. Indeed, Court can be read as dramatizing the silencing of the subaltern. In Tamhane’s updated brand of social realism, the Dalit character is silenced, sacrificed, pushed off-screen—just as he would be in real life. That does not make it any less of a film. It is worth adding here that Court is deeply informed by the brutal and absurd treatment of India’s leftist cultural activists. Kamble, in fact, is loosely modeled on the folk singer Sambhaji Bhagat. Such activists have suffered routine suppressions of freedom, unfair imprisonments, and even ‘encounters’ (staged killing, similar to Guerrero’s ‘disappearances’) for decades, but their stories have remained outside the limelight. This is partly because of the difficult political questions—questions of lingering casteism, of a failed welfare system—that they raise. When Arundhati Roy published Walking With The Comrades, her account of traveling with tribal Maoist guerrillas (indigenous people, like Dalits, have been oppressed by India’s caste-driven society for hundreds of years), she received belligerent criticism from ‘patriots’ who didn’t want the nation’s dirty internal wars to be publicized. In other words, regardless of the oblique treatment of its subject matter, Court remains a boldly political film.

In an interview with The New Republic, Tamhane noted that viewers “might judge these people [the bigoted government attorney who wants to imprison Kamble; the tired judge who shows him very little sympathy] for stifling free speech, but the public prosecutor could be my mother, or the judge my uncle.” This is a very telling remark. By redirecting our gaze from the invisible Dalit poet to his middle class oppressors, Tamhane opens a whole new box of questions. On one hand, he goads his viewers to judge the bigoted jurists that are directly responsible for keeping Kamble in jail. But then, through his sensitive, tender portrayals of their life, Tamhane humanizes these villains, reveals the cultural conditioning that lies behind their bigotry, and even dramatizes their own daily oppressions. In other words, he absolves them of all charges of malevolence. Consider the following example:

Pawar—the opposing attorney whom we first meet in court and so obviously dislike—is shown midway through the film returning home in the local train. Tired of her thoughts, she turns to the woman beside her. “I like your sari,” she says. The compliment is gracefully accepted. “What’s dinner at your house today?” the woman asks in return. There is a knowing exchange of smiles. “I will have to go home and cook it,” Pawar says. And here, amongst a discussion of rising crowds, multigrain bread, olive oil, Tamhane opens his quiet but fierce critique of the sexism latent in most Indian families. We follow Pawar as she picks her little son up from school, enquires about the homework, cooks food while consoling a friend on the phone, and then serves her husband whose eyes rest on the television. Then she serves her son. Then her daughter. Only then does she sit down to eat herself. After dinner, Pawar studies for her next day in court. None of this is treated with heavy-handedness or hate. The whole long sequence is suffused with tenderness. But the point about sexism is made, and Pawar has been humanized. She is now a person, not an attorney, and we almost agree the next morning when she says of Kamble, “Such people are boring to deal with. Same crimes, same bail violations, again and again. We should just lock them up in jail for twenty years. Will save everyone time.”

The above sequence is magical. This woman could be Tamhane’s mother. And yes, her life is very difficult. But to draw the line at that would be to ignore (willfully) the other hidden half of the story. Because Pawar’s actions, regardless of the intentions behind them, keep Kamble—a person who is so hopelessly, institutionally marginalized—in jail. And as writer Zia Haidar Rahman notes, “the only good an absence of malice guarantees is a clear conscience.” By turning away from Kamble, Court paradoxically redoubles our focus on him.

Let us visit Zadie Smith’s formulation from The Embassy Of Cambodia.  “Surely there is something to be said,” Smith writes, “for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?”

We could retain our focus on Court’s tender and heart-breaking domestic narratives. But that would mean drawing a circle around the middle-class and leaving marginalized Dalits outside our imagination. Because there is another story, another life—Kamble’s—being lived, under lamentable circumstances, in the wings of this film. To ignore its ominous shadow would be convenient, willful ignorance.

More Reads

One Life to Live

Niela Orr

A Review of: Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House

Leah Dworkin

A Review of: Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl

Camille Bromley