“It’s a different kind of terror when you’re constantly being arrested. Your mind starts exercising self-censorship on its own.”
Writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane, at age twenty-eight, delivers a scathing indictment of the Indian justice system in his first feature, Court, which deservedly won top prizes in the 2014 Venice Biennale’s Orizzonti section and has since racked up more than twenty festival awards.
On trial in Court is sixty-five-year-old folk singer and social activist Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who’s been arrested for allegedly inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide on the job by the lyrics in his protest songs—a ridiculous and patently trumped up charge.
The film is outstanding in its acute observation of courtroom protocols and procedures, arcane colonial-era laws and judicial peccadilloes that serve to create a theater of the absurd. But the story’s originality surges when it steps outside the courtroom between the sessions, which are constantly adjourned on inane pretexts, to follow the daily lives of the principal players—defense attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, who’s also the film’s producer), public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), and Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), adding texture and layers of unpredictability to their characters. Their domestic and social routines challenge the conventional affiliations between class and professional role—the cold-hearted public prosecutor, for instance, is from a working class background, while the defense attorney is from the upper echelons of social privilege.
In town last March for Court’s screening at New Directors New Films, Chaitanya Tamhane discusses the genesis of his script and its sociopolitical context, including the continuing role of the Indian caste system.
Liza Béar For a first feature, Court is pretty extraordinary on many levels. What kind of filmmaking or directing experience did you have beforehand?
Chaitanya Tamhane I have always done my own projects. I was just nineteen and still in college studying English when I made my first documentary. It was about plagiarism in Indian cinema, and very amateurish. Then I wrote and directed a play called Grey Elephants in Denmark.
LB A comedy?
CT No. It was about the life of a magician and a mentalist. It tracked his life from the age of eight to sixty. Then I made a short. I haven’t assisted anybody or been to film school. I’ve just been an art and cinema lover.
LB How were you able to get funding from the prestigious Hugo Bals Fund? Your short was in the Rotterdam Film Festival?
CT Yes. It’s a sixteen-minute film called Six Strands, a magical-realistic tale about a lonely tea estate owner who produces the world’s most expensive tea. While in Rotterdam I scheduled a meeting with the Hugo Bals Fund. I was twenty-four at the time. They let me apply, though I didn’t have the normal body of student work.
LB And you wrote the entire script for Court alone, without writing partners!
CT I did, yes. But I got research help from a lot of people.
LB How much of the story is based on actual events, and how much did you construct?
CT It’s a mixture. Because I was born and raised in Mumbai, I had an instinctive feel for Marathi culture. These bureaucrats in the film could have been my relatives or parents. Other parts [of the script] are based on observation. For my research, I interviewed lawyers, academics and activists, and studied dozens of newspaper articles and essays. So I was inspired by real people and incidents, but the rest was imagination and intuition. The main case itself is fiction.
LB What about the character Narayan Kamble, the protest singer who’s arrested for allegedly enticing a sewage worker to suicide?
CT He’s a completely fictitious character, but inspired by real-life Dalit singers, who are known as Lokshahirs, or people’s poets in Marathi. Lokshahirs use folk music as a form for dissent and protest.
LB You open the film in a vividly furnished apartment. Kamble is sitting on the bed with about fourteen young children on the floor. Is that a normal way to teach a class in India, in someone’s own home?
CT Yes, absolutely—at least for an afterschool program. That’s how I was raised. I would go to Indian teachers who didn’t specialize in any one subject—math, science, English, social studies. They taught everything.
LB In Kamble’s first performance in the film he sings, “Time to Revolt, Time to Know Your Enemy, We’re uprooted from our soil.” What is his background?
CT Dalit is his caste. India’s caste system, obviously, is very complex. The Brahmins are the highest on the ladder and the lowest are the Dalit, who’ve endured thousands of years of oppression. The Dalits were traditionally considered to be the untouchables. They would have menial jobs, be scavengers, manual workers, and if you touched them you would have to take a bath. So Kamble belongs to this Dalit community, symbolizing the sense of history. And yet regionally, just like the judge and the public prosecutor, he’s Maharastrian, from the state of Maharastra, whose language is Marathi. But within that culture we have different castes and sub-castes, so there’s also a game of surnames unfolding that I wouldn’t expect an outsider to understand.
LB Maybe in the play-within-the-film that the prosecuting attorney’s family goes to?
CT Yeah. Though [the anti-immigrant jokes in the play] are more about regions and religions. People from Northern India come and settle in Mumbai because, as the capital of Maharastra, it’s more economically profitable. But they feel that they are outsiders with low job opportunities.
LB When Kamble sings, “Time to Know Your Enemy,” what principally is he referring to?
And did you write these songs?
CT That’s an interesting question. I’ll tell you the process of how these four songs came about. I’d studied some really fantastic Dalit verse. I was also personally a bit angry when I was writing the script. Perhaps channeling that anger, I wrote a version of the songs—in English. But I can’t write Marathi, and Kamble had to perform in Marathi. We contacted Sambhaji Bhagat, a very famous Marathi singer, who had written many protest songs in the past. I asked Sambhaji to adapt the essence of the songs I’d written, but in the manner of a protest singer. Even if they’re not my own lines, I wanted them to be as authentic as possible. The way Sambhaji has written these songs, they are slightly more progressive [than my version], very direct. Because as a people’s poet, the songs have to reach out to the common man. So Vira Sathidar, the actor who plays Kamble, is lip-synching.
LB The sewer worker who is allegedly incited to suicide, is he a Dalit as well?
CT Yes, he is.
LB And what about the public prosecutor?
CT No, she’s not a Dalit. The attorney is a higher caste.
LB And the defense attorney, Vivek Gomber?
CT He belongs to the neighboring state Gujarat, so he is a Gujarati. The judge is a Brahmin. In India a lot of professions are determined by caste. As a Brahmin you are a custodian of knowledge. You would be a pundit, a teacher. If you are a Kshatriya, which is the second caste, traditionally you would be a warrior. You’d be surprised to know that we still have these distinctions. Obviously now it’s not constitutionally legal. Untouchability was abolished about fifty years ago post-independence, but the caste system is still pretty much in effect.
LB Did you attend a lot of court sessions?
CT I did, yeah. It was very interesting because each court had a different vibe dictated by the staff who inhabited that room. And by the judge. Every judge—
LB —sets the tone?
CT Yes. Every judge is such a unique personality. Apart from the main case that’s being discussed, I became aware of so many other different stories unfolding.
LB I like the fact that in the film, before the main case, we hear the end of one case, and afterward, the beginning of another—it sort of bracketed it.
There are references in the script to the Dramatic Performance Law, which is a Victorian law from 1876. So, the British Empire left a very untidy legacy of arcane, convoluted laws that India has to contend with.
CT These laws are still applicable. Of course, the British had—what is the right word?— instituted those laws to curb dissent. Like, for instance, the law of sedition, which says that you cannot speak against the government. The British brought that law to India. We still have that law, in a democracy, a free country. Many activists have been arrested and charged with sedition. Like dramatic performance, it’s one of many outdated Victorian laws that were used by the powers at that time to suppress dissent. And the Indian government is still using these laws for their convenience and to their benefit.
LB Has there been a tightening up against public protest in India, as there has in the US since 9/11? Have you noticed a crackdown against protest singers or demonstrations?
CT No, we haven’t had a definitive incident like 9/11 in the recent past. But what has happened in the last seven or eight months—I don’t know if I’m going to get into trouble for saying this—but the new government that has come into power and—
LB —is cracking down on dissent?
CT Yeah. There’ve been quite a few bans.
LB Don’t you think the so-called war on terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon?
CT Yes, but to my mind the US, compared to India, is a lot more tolerant. In the US, there is space for dissent. A documentary like Citizen Four is not only allowed to play in the theaters but is also honored with awards. In India it would be straight out banned. Noam Chomsky books are available in the bookstores, whereas in India they would be banned, and the author would be put in jail. We have cartoonists who are being arrested, films that are being banned. There is absolutely no tolerance.
LB Are there any satirical magazines, like Charlie Hebdo, in India?
CT Yes, there are, but it’s a different kind of terror when you’re constantly being arrested. Your mind starts exercising self-censorship on its own. In Court there’s a dialogue when the public prosecutor is sitting with her colleagues in the office and one of them says, “Madam wants to see new faces every day—”
LB Oh yeah.
CT “—let’s make her a judge.” The censorship board has asked me to mute that line. They’ve censored me.
LB Well, I’ll make sure it stays in this interview at least.
CT It’s so bizarre. They asked me to replace the line. I said no. We will mute the line and make it so obvious that it’s been censored. It’s ironic.
LB But I just heard that line at New Directors.
CT Because you saw the uncensored version. When it releases in India—
LB Oh my god, a line like that?
CT —it’ll be muted.
LB I thought this was a very subtly written script. Did you go through a lot of drafts?
CT In the first draft I got stuck at the point where Narayan Kamble is rearrested. In the very early versions, the public prosecutor was a male character. Then, as I was writing those scenes, I realized it’s becoming too male. When I made the public prosecutor a woman, the script had a very different texture, and it just felt right.
LB How did you do your casting? I suppose once you had the Hugo Bals seal of approval, the actors knew the production was for real.
CT But nobody in India cares.
LB (laughter) Nobody cares?
CT We won seventeen international awards, including two big prizes at Venice, and had no mainstream coverage in India, nothing at all. Then three weeks before the Indian release, we were suddenly all over the Indian newspapers because we won the National Award for Best Film, which is like the highest government honor in India for films from all regions and in all languages.
LB I hope it’s a cash award.
CT Yeah. It’s a little bit of cash—$10,000. Now I know the film won’t get banned in India.
LB The award is from the same administration that asked you to censor a line?
CT Uh huh, yes, but the juries are different. So, I don’t think the Hugo Bals Fund really mattered to anyone.
LB One of the cast members, Vivek Gomber, was already your friend.
CT Yes, because we worked together on the play I did. The thing is, as you know, India has the Bollywood tradition, many many TV shows and daily soaps. We love our films. We love our theatre. Our theatre is very “theatrical” in the traditional sense. It’s a very vibrant movement.
LB There are theatres in every city and town, even little ones, right?
CT Yeah. But for Court, a film that is so realistic in its texture and tone, we knew that casting actors whom we’ve seen many times on TV or film wouldn’t make sense and the illusion wouldn’t be convincing. So except for Vivek [Gomber] and Geetanjali, the two lawyers, most of the cast are non-professional actors who’ve never faced the camera.
LB And you felt comfortable working with them?
CT A decision like this comes with a cost. It has implications for your production, your budget, everything. We auditioned people for about nine months, with a casting director leading a team of eight. And we went to banks, railway offices, schools, snack windows, and asked people: Do you want to act?
LB Did you pay them?
CT Eventually for the film, yes, of course. We created a database of 1800 people in Mumbai from all walks of life. After several rounds of auditions, we finalized our cast. We used many criteria. One is that the person had to be comfortable saying completely scripted lines: there’s no improvisation in the film. Secondly, they had to be comfortable in front of a camera and a proper lighting set-up and a hundred-person crew.
LB A hundred people?
CT In India we have very big crews. It’s impossible to make a film with a small crew. We had 150–200 people on the set.
LB But for a first feature?
CT That’s thanks to Vivek, the producer. It’s his personal money.
LB And he acted in it, too. He really believed in the film.
CT We had a cast of at least 100 people, not including the extras. We had thousands of those. We would lock a location, and we would recreate Bombay. We would design it from scratch.
LB Those settings in the slums, are those constructed sets?
CT No. There is only one proper set in the film, the court, because you can’t shoot in a real court. The other scenes are shot on locations that we controlled, that we could modify and redesign from scratch.
LB They still use corrugated iron for the roof tops in the slums?
CT Yes. To get back to the actors: because these were non-professional actors doing really long scenes with no cuts for the most part, it would take them a while to get the rhythm of things. And I had to insure that the rhythm of a scene is perfect. So, on average, we would do thirty to forty takes. If one thing went wrong, we’d have to start all over again. It’s like the Rube Goldberg effect. And we went up to sixty, sixty-five takes. Which is why we would only shoot one scene a day. So, it’s not exactly low-budget in that sense. It was a half-million-dollar budget. That’s a lot for an Indian indie.
LB The film has an interesting structure, in that in between the seven or eight court sessions, you take the action outside the court and follow whoever’s been doing the questioning, like Vivek’s character, at his home, with his parents, at the press association, then giving a speech, at the nightclub. He’s really living it up. Did you come up with this structure while you were writing the script or was it more a directing decision?
CT It was the most exciting aspect of the film for me. I mean, that was the only reason why I decided to do a courtroom drama. Otherwise I wouldn’t want to touch this kind of film because I’m not a big fan of genre films.
LB Courtroom drama has been subverted by TV.
CT And over-abused. I knew from the beginning that exploring the personal lives of the main characters is what would make the film. Where do these people come from? What are their personal ethics, their cultural milieu? I knew that the scenes outside the courtroom could be more interesting than the scenes in the courtroom.
LB Was the sewer worker your invention?
CT I had all the scenes outside the courtroom in my head, all the characters figured out, but for the longest time I didn’t have a case. I had a set of thirteen or fourteen very daunting conditions that the case had to meet.
CT For example, the case couldn’t be so absorbing or moving that the explorations of the personal lives became a distraction for the audience. In a way, I didn’t want the plot of the case to dominate the character studies. At one point, I ran into a blank wall and didn’t know what to do. I remember being very fascinated with the world of musicians and folk singers, because I’d seen some real-life performances. I’d once read an article about the general working conditions of manhole workers in the country. It was a very serious piece of journalism—about the lack of safety, equipment, and how they’re treated as members of the Dalit community, how their pay is ridiculously low. Before I started writing the script, I was really depressed and suicidal. At that point, I was reading The Savage God. One day, it all (claps hands) came together, and I had the case. So, it’s a completely fictional case in that sense, but these elements were floating in my head and just sort of—
LB —gelled. I noticed the password for the Vimeo link for your film has 2012 in it.
CT That’s when the preproduction started. But I started in 2011, so it’s been three and a half years.
LB How did you support yourself during that time?
CT Vivek paid me to develop the script and while we were prepping.
LB That’s a really good friend. One thing that struck me about your courtroom scenes was the stenographer. Here a stenographer records a verbatim transcript. But in your film, the judge paraphrases the argument, and he biases it in favor of the prosecuting attorney against the defendant. That was a clever touch because it’s almost imperceptible unless you’re listening very closely, the way he twists the language. Were you happy to come up with this twist?
CT It happened organically while writing. With three languages in the courtroom, language is playing on multiple levels in the film. All the laws are in English because they’re inherited from the British. But the bureaucrats are all Maharastrians, so they switch to Maharati when they talk to each other personally. The defense lawyer, who is Gujarati, doesn’t understand Maharati and asks, Why don’t you speak in Hindi or English? That’s one aspect. The other aspect is that the language of discourse is outside of the purview of most people who are involved in the case. Some of the technical legal jargon that is being thrown around in the courtroom, you wouldn’t understand even if it’s your own case. And the third thing is that with the tiniest lapse of attention on your part, you miss something. Even if the judge is fair or wants to play by the book, sometimes he could end up saying something else, like paraphrasing incorrectly. That was an interesting element to explore.
LB Yes, it was fabulous and one element that hooked me into the film.
Court opens theatrically in the US on July 15, 2015, through Zeitgeist Films. In true independent spirit, it was released on April 17 in 150 theatres in India by the film’s producers.
BOMB contributing editor Liza Béar is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She is the author of Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007). This season, she has read in The Enclave Reading Series at Cakeshop, New York. Her fiction will be published in the anthology From Somewhere to Nowhere: The End of the American Dream (Autonomedia, New York) in 2016.