'Court': Antalya Review

Court Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Golden Orange Film Festival, Antalya

Court Still - H 2014

Compellingly clear-eyed indictment of modern-day India's institutional dysfunction

Vivek Gomber produces and stars in Chaitanya Tamhane's Indian drama, winner of the top prize in Venice's Orizzonti section

Mumbai's Chaitanya Tamhane emerges as one of the world's most accomplished and promising film-makers under 30 with his quietly steely legal drama Court, a bluntly-titled chronicle of politically-motivated injustice.

Presenting India as a severely dysfunctional state with one foot in the 19th century and one in the 21st, this slow-burning procedural breaks little new ground in formal terms but was of sufficient distinction to nab top honors in Venice's notionally "edgy" Orizzonti sidebar. Having already added to its haul of festival silverware in the interim, it can expect plentiful further bookings and with proper handling could prove arresting in international markets.

Until now best known at home as a playwright, 27-year-old writer-director Tamhane's sole previous big-screen outing was 2011 short Six Strands, which enjoyed a measure of international play. And while this near two-hour feature debut does betray occasional signs of inexperience, on the whole it's a work of striking confidence. This air of solidly grounded maturity is all the more remarkable given that several of Tamhane's key collaborators, including editor Rikhav Desai and production-designers Poola Talreja and Somnath Pal, had never previously worked on a fiction feature.

Tamhane likewise excels with an ensemble that seamlessly combines professionals and non-pros and weaves together dialogue in Hindi, English and the local dialect Marathi. The cast is headed by Vivek Gomber who starred in Tamhane's magic-themed 2009 play Grey Elephants In Denmark and takes sole producing credit here. His Vinay Vora is the walking epitome of "modern India", a cultured, moneyed, wine-sipping sophisticate whose leisure-time is often spent in his city's most westernized stores and bars. 

Vora's keen (and perhaps guilty) social conscience makes him seek out defendants like Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), an unapologetically firebrand 65-year-old folk-singer arrested on charges of "abetting suicide" following the death of a sewer-worker. All-too-familiar with the Indian state's habit of repeatedly arresting troublesome citizens on dubious charges, Vora now finds himself up against a meticulous prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) unfazed by the fact that many of the laws and statues she invokes were crafted at least a century ago during India's colonial era.

Tamhane takes pains to humanize both advocates, however, showing the prosecutor at home in her cramped apartment, cooking for her husband and two children before conscientiously poring over her case-notes. In a particularly acerbic scene, this family visit a theater to enjoy a broad comedy play. The piece's unsubtle, reactionary message—iand the audience's noisily approving response—indicates that such entertainments are evidently tolerated, even encouraged, by a government which takes a drastically stiffer attitude to "seditious" or boat-rocking material.

But this sequence also points up the main recurring weakness of Court, as Tamhane and his editor Rikhav Desai linger excessively on a preliminary shot showing the crowd entering the building—one of numerous instances where Tamhane's evident fondness for long takes veers into the frustrating realms of pointless protraction. This "patient" approach, while padding out the overall running-time, does at least allow viewers to savor the stately tableaux of cinematographer Mrinal Desai's 2.35:1 widescreen visuals.

The tripod-fixed camera of Desai, who shot second unit on Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, unblinkingly surveys scenes often crammed with convincing detail and invaluable social/environmental context. Verisimilitude is a consistently strong suit here, which is partly why newcomer Usha Bane—who genuinely seems to have wandered in off the street—makes such an impact as the illiterate, quietly-spoken widow of the deceased.

In a much flashier but more crucial role, Pradeep Joshi turns in deft, sparky work as the famously speedy Judge Sadavarte, a superficially genial but ultimately ambiguous figure who takes center-stage during an extended coda at a beach resort. It's here that Tamhane's polemical intentions come into clinchingly stark focus, the modest eloquence of his "closing argument" outweighing overruling all objections.

Production company: Zoo Films
Cast: Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Pradeep Joshi, Vira Sathidar, Usha Bane
Director / Screenwriter: Chaitanya Tamhane
Producer: Vivek Gomber
Executive producer: B.S. Narayanaswamy
Cinematographer: Mrinal Desai
Production designers:
 Pooja Talreja, Somnath Pal
Costume designer: Sachin Lovalekar
Editor: Rikhav Desai
Composer: Sambhaji Bhagat
Sales: Artscope, Paris

No Rating, 116 minutes