Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2014): A Postmodern Critique of the Indian Judicial System 

This essay on Chaitanya Tamhane’s film ‘Court’ was published by Film Companion in September last year and taken down two days later. Upon enquiry, the author was told it was due to a “technical glitch as the website was being refurbished.” However, the essay was never restored.

14court lead
Poster of the film Court, 2014.

In the most Kafkaesque manner, Chaitanya Tamhane’s directorial debut Court (2014) takes on the task of laying bare the “judicial nightmares” through the case of one Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar), a Marathi protest-singer and Dalit activist, who gets arrested on a bizarre charge and is led through numerous trials in the Mumbai sessions court.

The film made its debut screening at the 71st Venice International Film Festival in 2014, and since then has bagged numerous awards – rightfully so. Its genius lies in examining and showcasing fragmentary human nature. The director, through a process of constant association-dissociation has tried to deem legal institutions absurd, not to say irrelevant in upholding the abstract ideological grounds of social stability that rest upon averting the gaze to actual social realities.

Though the film centers around a certain case involving a certain man and his trial, yet somewhere along the line the audience cannot help but notice how the film detaches itself from its central plot to revolve around events that are barely relevant to the actual case. Yet again, everything connects loosely, as if to call out the farce called “court.”

Kamble is arrested by the police on the charge of abetment to suicide when a manhole worker named Vasudev Pawar commits suicide after being influenced, allegedly, by Kamble’s song. A middle-class lawyer, Vinay Vora (played by Vivek Gomber), is generous enough to take Kamble’s case. Vora belongs to a well-to-do family, is well behaved, drives his own car, goes out with his bourgeois friends at pubs playing English songs, lives away from his parents but visits them often. Yet again, on closer scrutiny, he is also the one who shops without taking a glance at the price tag, calls Subodh his ‘friend’ and the very next moment, in an argument with his mother, claims Subodh to be someone he is meeting only for the fourth time. Vora’s acute class consciousness and subsequent guilt makes him take up the cause of the downtrodden by virtue of self-satisfaction that attaches itself with most philanthropic acts undertaken by those in “higher” echelons of social hierarchy.

Besides Vinay, the personal lives of the other two characters representing legal institutions – Public Prosecutor Nutan (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni) and Judge  Sadavarte (played by Pradeep Joshi) – are also focused upon in the film. Nutan is not of the same mould as of a modern day working woman. She sticks to the age-old role of women as domestic caregivers and the preserver of ethics within her family as well in the court. She doesn’t speak English as fluently as Vora does. Both Nutan and Judge Sadavarte become the epitome of archaic laws; Nutan goes on reading the laws for about two minutes, she calls “irrational” Goyamari practices as “sacred,” while the Judge dismisses a hearing on the pretext of a woman not dressed in a proper manner. Sadavarte is more focused on dictating statements to the typist rather than judging the case properly. Despite Kamble being the driving force of the entire plot, his presence is rarely felt, and his screen time is kept to the minimum. Vinay, Nutan and Sadavarte receiving the spotlight shows how these characters are never truly about serving justice to the marginalized people, and perhaps to people in general.

The film gets a vital edge in the hands of Cinematographer Mrinal Desai. The use of wide shots, a technique used in western films, is blended with the cinematic stills towards the end. This develops a conscious sense of incomprehensibility. At one point, towards the end, the film seems to be ending through a still that runs for almost more than a minute. This deliberate teasing takes us to the next scene, as it opens with the Judge taking a summer vacation when there are many people in the lurch, making the critique of the system even cruder. Without the use of crude satire or caricature, in presenting the simple and long shots of everyday ongoings in the lives of the characters, the normalisation of oppressive structures has been brought to the limelight. 

Set in Maharashtra, the film takes into account all four languages spoken in the state–Marathi, Gujrati, Hindi and English. In doing so, Tamhane not only depicts the rich culture but also complicates the power dynamics. In the court, Nutan speaks mostly in Marathi and sometimes in unpolished English, Vora speaks mostly in fluent English and Hindi and fails to understand at times what Nutan says in Marathi, at home Vora speaks in Gujarati. This brings into play a sense of deception and misinformation that pervades the Justice system and also hints at how truth gets manipulated very often.

Narayan Kamble sings and speaks in Marathi and at a point, during his trials, he states that he prefers to communicate in Marathi rather than Hindi. His songs, in Marathi, urge the common people to know one’s enemy during these tough times:

Jaan, Jaan, Jaan…dushmana jaan re…Kathin aala kaad…Maati se phute naal re

His songs bring out the true colour of the society. After he receives bail, he continues his work. His second song is quite bold enough to call for the emancipation of art. Amidst the chase for power and control, art, as his song would convey, has become mere “hogwash” and a “deception in the name of aesthetics.” As the film begins, we see Narayan’s voice getting intervened by the police. In the second half of the film, we see the police intervene again but this time he is arrested from the printing press where his book Apamanacha Itihas (History of Humiliation) was being printed. So, through a character like Kamble, the film sets out to raise voice for the establishment of artistic endeavour that is in constant threat of getting censored.

The film makes a successful attempt at bringing the “era of darkness” to the foreground where, as Kamble’s song would pronounce, the marginal people don’t get justice, artistic endeavours do not find expression and truth has lost its voice. Justice, which has failed miserably, is asleep like Sadavarte sleeping towards the end of the film, and that it needs a jolt to wake up, as the kids wake Sadavarte up with a scream, is made clear.


Sourav Kapri

Sourav has a Master’s degree in English Literature. He takes interest in ideas, cinema, Gender studies and Posthumanism. The habitual reader in Sourav tries to be caring and empathetic towards people but no matter how subservient he might seem (not to mention, having the look of an obedient and goody two shoes) at times he would bare his teeth and call out on anyone or anything he finds ethically outrageous. His passions include gobbling down Luchis and the Bangali Biryani (which he can cook up in a jiffy. Yes, he cooks!). Thus, he is quite the Blahcksheep with the wool and the fangs.


Related Articles

To Collect Women

To Collect Women

This personal essay titled, ‘To Collect Women‘ was rejected by numerous magazines and websites because it wasn’t “personal enough,” or

Scroll to Top