Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 06, 2015 3:55 pm 
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A cool, yet humanistic, look at "justice" in India

Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane's distinctive debut revolves around the legal case of a 65-year-old folksinger and political activist called Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who sings socially aware songs in working class districts. He is arrested on the preposterous charge of inciting a sewage worker to kill himself after listening to one of his songs. The film doesn't so much stay with Narayan as with his defense attorney, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), and even the state attorney, Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), a woman, and the judge, whose cut-rate vacation ends the film, underlying its ironic, neutral eye, which may owe something to the new Romanian cinema. I was reminded both of Crisiti Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (NYFF 2005) and of Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective (NYFF 2009). Like the Romanians, Tamhane's work is a tough, unyielding watch, but it constitutes a devastating critique of India, even while showing its richness and complexity and its ordinary people's ability to have a good time. Vira Sathidar, performing two songs as Narayan, proves a terrific singer, by the way.

Working with a well organized ensemble of professional and nonprofessional actors, Tamhane delivers a cool succession of perfectly authentic-feeling scenes. His signature moments are of courtroom routine (the camera always with its eye first on the whole crowded spectacle), in which the prosecution lawyer reads off archaic laws and uses 40-year-old "offenses" of the leftist defendant, who has been jailed and tried for one trumped-up charge after another, plainly just a victim of government bullying.

As Jay Weissberg points out in an enthusiastic review in Variety, this film gains its dimensionality (and its style) from the way it looks at Vora and Nutan, showing Nutan to be a mindless right-winger who can't wait to be a judge, while Vora is "firmly a member of India’s globalized elite," doubtless with the connections to have a far better-paying position and choosing to be a public defender for idealistic reasons. There is also the aforementioned final glimpse of the judge's shabby group summer holiday trip, and at one point even a look at the wife of the man whom Narayan is accused of inciting to suicide, a man who was a victim not of Narayan's songs but his own awful life, who probably succumbed to toxic fumes while drunk, working in the sewers. Her dull stare tells a tale of miserable poverty too sad to contemplate.

The Indian legal system as glimpsed here is archaic, quaint, and laughably cumbersome, as well as pretty primitive, with the official court record consisting only of what the judge periodically chooses to dictate. And it is designed for gridlock, so that Narayan's current case, constantly put off another month or two to consider some minor detail, is likely to go on for years. This is very bad for the defendant since his health is shaky and it's hard to get him out on bail. When Vora does get him out, Narayan doesn't take his advice to lay low. Instead he performs and writes a pamphlet about his mistreatment, leading him to be arrested again.

Seeing this movie is like watching a train wreck. You can't look away from tis display of the power of class and the life-mangling effects of intentionally drawn-out judicial incompetence, but you just go on watching, no matter how painful, even excruciating, it is to do so. Weissberg suggests this is "Possibly too cerebral for the Lunchbox crowd," in need of more festival exposure to make its way "onto speciality screens." All the romance has been drained from our vision of India by the time we've experienced this complex, mind-boggling, convincing film.

Court, 116 mins., from India and in Marathi, Gujarati, and Hindi, debuted at Venice (Horizons series Best Film and Luigi De Laurentis Award) in Sept. 2014; with top prizes also at Mumbai, Singapore and Hong Kong; included in ten other festivals. Screened for this review as part of the FSLC/MoMA New Directors/New Films series, March 2015.

US theatrical release began Wed., 15 July 2015 in NYC at Film Forum.

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