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New Release Review - COURT

A progressive Indian lawyer faces a struggle against traditional laws and beliefs while defending a folk singer.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Chaitanya Tamhane

Starring: Usha Bane, Vivek Gomber, Pradeep Joshi, Geetanjali Kulkarni



If you're expecting grand-standing speeches, you'll find Tamhane's courtroom anti-drama as frustrating as Vinay finds the Indian justice system. But if you appreciate a realistic and nuanced examination of the struggle to make progress in a society that keeps one foot firmly wedged in the mud of the past, Court makes for a mostly fascinating watch.



The courtroom and its immediate environs have proven a fertile setting for a host of movies, and many top directors have found themselves helming a courtroom drama at some point in their careers - Hitchcock's lamentable The Paradine Case, Spielberg's Amistad, Wilder's Witness For the Prosecution and Lumet's The Verdict and 12 Angry Men, to name a few. It's a sub-genre largely known for its lack of subtlety, with prosecutors and lawyers engaging in histrionic verbal battles, usually while wiping copious amounts of sweat from their brows (why are courtroom dramas always set in sweltering conditions?) Anyone who served on a jury or found themselves on either side of a legal case will tell you the reality is quite the opposite; court cases are generally butt-numbingly dull affairs that drag on endlessly. By reflecting this truth, Chaitanya Tamhane's directorial debut, Court, may be the most realistic depiction of a trial ever put to screen.


When a sewage worker commits suicide in Mumbai, Narayan (Vira Sathidar), an aging folk singer, is arrested and charged with inciting the 'victim's actions due to the lyrics of a song he recently performed. Representing him is Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), a progressive civil rights lawyer from a wealthy background. The prosecutor is Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), a traditional conservative who takes public transport home to cook for her family every evening. While Vinay understandably sees how ridiculous the nature of the charges are, Nutan sees no problem in maintaining laws written two centuries ago, and worryingly for Narayan's case, neither does the judge (Pradeep Joshi).

Even the most advanced societies find themselves referring back to laws and documents penned in a bygone time - just think how many countries are stunted by an allegiance to centuries old constitutions! Search through the laws of any country or state and you'll find some pretty bizarre entries yet to be torn from the books. Usually, these archaic and laughable rules have no bearing on us today, but occasionally one will rear its ugly head with tragic consequences. Here in Ireland we're currently attempting to rewrite our constitution to remove the barbaric practice of sacrificing a mother to save her unborn child, following a high profile case in which a tourist (from India, coincidentally) had the misfortune to find herself in such a situation in an Irish hospital and was thus killed to save her child. The case in Court isn't a literal life and death type scenario like that, but its nuances serve as the perfect starting point for a filmic investigation of the struggle to make progress in a society where people have blindly accepted a certain set of rules for centuries and aren't willing to upset the status quo.


Tamhane commendably resists the temptation to paint the prosecutor Nutan as a cartoon villain; quite the opposite - she's arguably more likeable and a warmer person than Vinay, the closest the film has to a 'hero'. When the drama exits the courtroom to follow the day to day lives of Vinay and Nutan, it's the latter who seems the one you'd most like to share a dinner with. A charming scene has Nutan engage in a relatively hum-drum conversation with another middle-aged woman on a train. They talk about everyday subjects like sari-shopping and their husband's medical conditions, but with unbridled enthusiasm. This is their world, and they're fully at peace with it. On the other hand, Vinay seems completely miserable with his lot. We follow him as he lives a 'westernised' lifestyle, listening to jazz in his German car, shopping for western food and visiting bars where singers deliver covers of Brazilian bossa-nova ballads, all the while carrying a sullen expression. His parents seemingly refuse to take him seriously, embarrassing him in front of a visiting work colleague in one hilarious dinner table scene. Even the Indian climate conspires against Vinay as he's awkwardly forced to pause a lecture on human rights while an electric fan is installed in the auditorium.


If you're expecting grand-standing speeches, you'll find Tamhane's courtroom anti-drama as frustrating as Vinay finds the Indian justice system. But if you appreciate a realistic and nuanced examination of the struggle to make progress in a society that keeps one foot firmly wedged in the mud of the past, Court makes for a mostly fascinating watch.
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