Court tackles an improbable but true story based on the Indian legal system

When a 65-year-old singing social activist is charged with inciting a sewage worker to kill himself through one of his songs, defense attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) argues against the charge before Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), while public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) relies on archaic laws to prove his guilt.
A scene from Chaitanya Tamhane's film Court. Courtesy Zoo Entertainment
A scene from Chaitanya Tamhane's film Court. Courtesy Zoo Entertainment

Having already earned some big awards, Court is shaping up to become this year’s version of the acclaimed 2013 film The Lunchbox.

After its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film won the prestigious Lion of the Future award for a debut project and the Orizzonti (Horizons) Award for Best Film. At the Mumbai Film Festival, Chaitanya Tamhane became the first Indian film director to win the International Competition segment, which honours the best debut film showing at the festival – the film won Best Film and Best Director awards.

As its name suggests, the film is a courtroom drama. When a 65-year-old singing social activist is charged with inciting a sewage worker to kill himself through one of his songs, defence lawyer Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) argues against the charge before judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), while the public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) relies on archaic laws to prove his guilt. The case is used to expose wider divisive issues in Indian society, particularly those of caste and class.

The inspiration for the central story came from a real-life case.

“There is an Indian cultural activist called Jiten Marandi who sings against the injustices in society and the establishment,” says the 27-year-old, Mumbai-based Tamhane. “There was a bomb blast and they said the name of the suspect was Jiten Marandi and instead of getting that Jiten Marandi, they sentenced the activist to death. All these activists began writing letters to the president and said this has to stop. It was bizarre this was happening.”

The film’s star, Gomber, is also its producer. Speaking after a 28-hour flight to the Gijón International Film Festival in Spain late last month, Gomber and Tamhane say the film came about because of their friendship.

“Chaitanya wrote a play called Grey Elephants in Denmark a few years ago and a common friend put us in touch,” says Gomber.

“Vivek had the lead role in the play,” says Tamhane. “He played a magician and a mind reader. I was not very easy to work with as I was 22 at the time.”

Gomber says: “I didn’t know this before, but I later found out that when he put the play on before, he had fired the cast, including someone I knew.”

Tamhane says age played a role in the incident. “There was this age thing going on. They were these 30-year-old actors wondering who this young buck was, who thinks he knows everything.”

Despite the backstory, Gomber and Tamhane enjoyed working together and in 2012 their paths crossed again. Tamhane had made a short film but was at a crossroads.

“I told him I’m broke and I’m depressed. I want to write this film, but I need to make some money. I couldn’t afford to go to film school and had put all my money into the short film,” says Tamhane

“I wanted to help him,” says Gomber.

When Tamhane said he wanted to do a film that looked at the Indian legal system, especially the small local courts, it immediately struck a chord with the actor – whose mother is a judge. And so their collaboration began, with Tamhane making it clear he did not set out to create an indictment of the Indian court system.

“I didn’t want to make an easy film where the system is bad, or the people are bad, we have seen that many times before and I was not aiming for that.”

Instead he creates a nuanced view of the Indian legal system, which also branches out to show the contrasting home lives of the main lawyers.

• Court screens at Mall of the Emirates 2 on Monday, December 15, at 9.30pm and again on MoE 12 on Wednesday, December 17, at 6pm. For more information, visit www.diff.ae

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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